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Free Expression, Government Surveillance, Privacy & Data

Comments to DHS on Proposal to Ask Visa Waiver Applicants for Social Media Identifiers

The Center for Democracy & Technology appreciates the opportunity to provide comments to the Department of Homeland Security on its proposal to begin requesting disclosure of social media identifiers and other online account information from Visa Waiver Program applicants. DHS proposes to ask foreign visitors applying for a waiver of visa requirements to provide “information associated with [their] online presence,” including the “provider/platform” and “social media identifier” used by the applicant. While the details of this proposed information collection are unclear, DHS’s Notice of Collection Activities states that the solicited online identity information “will enhance the existing investigative process” and “provide DHS greater clarity and visibility to possible nefarious activity and connections” of visitors to the United States.

CDT is deeply concerned that this proposal would invade the privacy and chill the freedom of expression of visitors to the United States and United States citizens.

Under the proposed changes, visitors to the U.S. who seek admittance through the Electronic System of Travel Authorization (ESTA), or complete Form I-94W, will be subject to unspecified review and monitoring of their public online activity by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials. This program will also increase the surveillance of U.S. citizens, both as a result of their online connections to visitors to the U.S. and because other countries may seek similar information from U.S. citizens traveling abroad. The burdens of this scrutiny will undoubtedly fall disproportionately on visitors and U.S. citizens who are Muslim or who have connections to the Middle East.

In addition to these challenges for fundamental rights, the proposal has a number of practical drawbacks as well. First, it is unlikely to yield useful information for CBP officials. Bad actors could easily circumvent the request by providing intentionally false or incomplete information. Further, the expense of the proposed data collection and analysis is significantly underestimated in the Request for Comment. In-depth, unbiased evaluation of a prospective visitor’s public social media posts and connections cannot be accomplished in an automated fashion and would require extensive—and costly—human review.

For all of these reasons, we urge DHS to withdraw this proposal and to reject any approach that involves suspicionless monitoring and review of individuals’ social media activity.