While the department doesn’t intend to ask for applicants’ passwords in order to read private messages and posts, CBP’s new proposal would make sweeps of public social-media information an integral part of the visa-application process. The new question would appear on forms for non-citizens seeking to enter the U.S. without a visa.
Combing through Twitter timelines could give customs agents another view into visa applicants’ intentions and backgrounds—but whether agents use that information responsibly is another matter.
“In general, social media is not a place where every statement should be taken dead seriously, as CBP seems to have done in the past,” said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, the chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a digital-rights advocacy group.
Hall was referring to an incident in 2012, when two tourists from the U.K. were refused entry to the U.S., apparently over a pair of misguided tweets. One of the travelers tweeted that he would “destroy America,” a phrase he later said was slang for his intention to party during his trip. He also tweeted that he would dig up Marilyn Monroe’s grave—this, he claimed, was a reference to Family Guy, a TV show. The travelers were turned back at the Los Angeles airport.
Most people’s social media presences aren’t entirely accurate reflections of themselves. Hall, for example, often tweets about satanic death-metal music—but no, he’s not a satanist. “I just find it fascinating, and I used to play in a heavy-metal band,” Hall told me. “If you read from that that I’m traveling someplace to commit some sort of ritual, you’d have a pretty bad insight into what I think is important.”
Travelers eager to gain entry to the U.S. might be unlikely to skip over a question that seems like it could support their case, but sharing their social media information with the government may hurt more than it would help. In an experiment run by the office of the Director of National Intelligence last year, 300 randomly selected government workers from a pool of 5,000 volunteers were screened using open-source investigation tactics, including scans of their public social media information. Of those people, a whopping 28 percent had something in their profiles that raised a red flag. (And that’s among volunteers who already held security clearances.)
This May, the government made it official policy to use public information, including public social media posts, in background investigations for security clearances. Combined with CBP’s proposal, these policies could be the foot in the door for other parts of government also seeking to use social media information in their vetting processes. But separate policies wouldn’t even be required if agencies share information gathered from social media accounts with one other.