World

Trump Administration Considers Vetting Foreign Visitors’ Social Media Behaviour

A string of comments on Twitter complained that US border authorities were demanding access to the social media accounts of those crossing over.

Activists gather at Portland International Airport to protest against President Donald Trump's executive action travel ban in Portland, Oregon, US January 29, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Steve Dipaola

Activists gather at Portland International Airport to protest against President Donald Trump’s executive action travel ban in Portland, Oregon, US January 29, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Steve Dipaola

New Delhi: Even as US airports are barely coping with the chaos and protests over the government’s new order on immigration, the Donald Trump administration has apparently proposed to ask all foreign visitors for details of their web browsing and social media accounts.

On Saturday, a Houston immigration lawyer tweeted that green card holders were being forced to give US border authorities access to their Facebook accounts.

She alleged that an Iranian green card holder was interrogated for several hours, as they questioned her political beliefs and checked her Facebook.

This was among a string of anecdotes that border police were going through the social media accounts of visitors, mainly green card holders, as part of the vetting process on their arrival on US soil.

The executive order, signed by Trump, suspends the admission of refugees for three months and bars citizens of seven muslim-majority countries from entering US for the next 90 days.

Green card holders from the seven Muslim countries were targeted for inspection of social media accounts as the White House insisted that the new rule for repeated vetting also applied to permanent residents and they will only be allowed entry on a case-by-case basis. After widespread protests, US homeland security secretary John Kelly said in a statement that people from the seven countries who hold green cards would not be blocked from returning to the US from overseas.

Even conservative outlets like the Washington Examiner, which have been usually pro-Trump, noted that the inclusion of green card holders “isn’t anywhere close to rational anti-terrorism policy”.

CNN on Sunday said that the White House policy director Stephen Miller – one of the authors of the executive order – had told Trump administration officials that they were discussing the possibility of “asking foreign visitors to disclose all websites and social media sites they visit, and to share the contacts in their cell phones”.

“If the foreign visitor declines to share such information, he or she could be denied entry. Sources told CNN that the idea is just in the preliminary discussion level,” said the report on January 29.

US President Donald Trump signs an executive order to impose tighter vetting of travelers entering the United States, at the Pentagon in Washington, US, January 27, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Carlos Barria

US President Donald Trump signs an executive order to impose tighter vetting of travelers entering the United States, at the Pentagon in Washington, US, January 27, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Carlos Barria

The Trump administration’s proposal makes the sharing of social media information mandatory, rather than voluntary, as well as extends it all foreign visitors rather than to a selective lot, in contrast to the plan of the previous US government.

Last month, Politico had pointed out that from December 20, the US government had begun quietly asking foreign visitors arriving on its territory under the visa waiver scheme to voluntarily provide “information related with your online presence”. According to Politico, the online menu included space for travellers to input their account names on platforms like Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube.

It was the implementation of a Barack Obama administration proposal, which first came to public in June 2016 and had faced a barrage of criticism from internet and civil rights groups.

The Internet Association, the main trade body for IT firms, had said that the draft rule could have “a chilling effect on use of social media networks, online sharing and, ultimately, free speech online”.

The Silicon Valley giants warned that the implementation of the proposed guidelines could lead to other countries to impose a reciprocal condition on US citizens.

“Should the U.S. Government advance with the DHS proposal it is probable that other countries will make similar requests of visitors entering their country, including U.S. citizens… This will be true for democratic and non-democratic countries alike, including those that do not have the same human rights and due process standards as the U.S.,” said a statement published by Politico in August 2016.

Twenty-two public interest organisations had then issued a joint letter opposing the proposal, as a “person’s online identifiers are gateways into an enormous amount of their online expression and associations, which can reflect highly sensitive information about that person’s opinions, beliefs, identity, and community”.

Access Now’s senior legislative manager had pointed out that while the proposal was to hand over information was voluntary, traveler are likely to be “intimidated” into handing them over. “The choice to hand over this information is technically voluntary. But the process to enter the US is confusing, and it’s likely that most visitors will fill out the card completely rather than risk additional questions from intimidating, uniformed officers — the same officers who will decide which of your jokes are funny and which ones make you a security risk,” he said.

The Obama administration’s proposal had been mooted in the background of rising clamour from US lawmakers for increased scrutiny of social media. It was claimed that Tashfeen Malik, half of the married couple behind the attack in San Bernandino in December 2015, posted pro-jihadi content on her Facebook page before she applied for a US visa. The FBI later said that Malik had not made any prior public postings, but had only communicated through direct messages.

Incidentally, the CNN report on Sunday also cited Malik’s social media posts as being “part of the discussion” on the proposal to check the “online presence” of all foreign visitors.

Trump’s new immigration rule would not have actually stopped Malik, as she was a Pakistani national and therefore not part of the seven countries of concern.