Social Networking

US Government’s Social Media Vetting Idea Draws Fire

A coalition headed by the Center for Democracy & Technology, the Internet Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union this week filed objections to a Department of Homeland Security proposal to collect social media information from visitors entering the United States.

The proposal, published in June, calls for the addition of a request to the I-94W form required for aliens seeking entry under the nonimmigrant Visa Waiver Program and the Electronic System for Travel Authorization.

“Please enter information associated with your online presence — Provider/Platform — Social media identifier” is the proposed wording of the request.

Entering the data would be optional, according to the DHS.

Data collected would be used for vetting purposes and for application contact information. It would enhance existing investigative processes and provide greater clarity and visibility into possible nefarious activity and connections, the department maintained.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency handles visitors’ travel forms.

Worries and Warnings

The proposal goes far beyond the customary visa-waiver application questions, according to the CDT coalition.

“Online identifier collection is highly invasive,” its letter warns. “An open-ended inquiry into ‘online presence’ would give DHS a window into applicants’ private lives. Individuals’ ‘online presence’ could include their reading lists, political affinities, professional activities, and private diversions.”

Analyzing all visa-waiver applicants’ social media activity and connections would be difficult and highly expensive, it notes. Further, the content and connections on social media is subject to misinterpretion, as their meanings are idiosyncratic and context-dependent.

The data likely would be used to augment existing lists and databases for tracking persons of interest, the CDT’s letter points out, which could have unfortunate consequences for innocent individuals swept up into those programs.

“The risk of discrimination based on analysis of social media content and connections is great and will fall hardest on Arab and Muslim communities, whose usernames, posts, contacts, and social networks will be exposed to intense scrutiny,” the coalition’s letter warns.

“As currently drafted, it is possible that the proposal will have a chilling effect on use of social media networks, online sharing and, ultimately, free speech online,” theInternet Association warned in its comments in response to the proposal.

“The collection of this information poses a host of questions, none of which are answered or even acknowledged to exist in the published Notice,” commented the ACLU.

“What will be done with the information? How much information will be accessed using the social media identifiers? What will be the standard for disqualifying someone based on accessed information? What about the impacts on others whose names are linked to the applicant’s?” the ACLU asked. “These and other questions implicate an array of due process, privacy and speech rights.”

Who Gets Caught in the Net

“This is likely to only identify stupid terrorists, [who] post their views against a country prior to going there,” remarked Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

That said, it should be done “just to cover the bases,” he told TechNewsWorld.

The data collected “could identify a crime in the making,” Enderle suggested.

Still, “the most lethal folks are probably not on social media,” he acknowledged, “and the utility of this method will drop sharply over time as people learn about it. It could also make more people in general more careful about what they put in social media.”

“There are many ways this [data collection] can be used to do more than just identify terrorists based on their political views,” said Daniel Castro, director of the Center for Data Innovation.

For example, the data could be used to identify people whose names were similar to those on a terror watch list, he told TechNewsWorld. It also could be used to verify a person’s travel history based on the geolocation tags in their social media accounts.

The Customs and Border Protection Agency should be encouraged to explore how it might use data to improve vetting of travelers, the CDI wrote in a letter to the agency, but it cautioned that any implementation should be reviewed thoroughly to ensure it would be effective while also protecting civil liberties.

As for privacy concerns, “I don’t see a major privacy risk if the government copy of a public tweet is shared inappropriately or hacked,” the CDI’s Castro said. “DHS should secure this like any other system housing sensitive personally identifiable information.”

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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