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Government Surveillance

OMB Should Deny State Department’s Proposal to Collect Social Media Identifiers from 14.7 Million Visa Applicants

In August the State Department (DOS) submitted its proposal to collect social media identifiers used in the last five years from 14.7 million immigrant and nonimmigrant visa applicants to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for approval. OMB is responsible for assessing agency programs, policies and procedures for compliance with the president’s policies and coordinate inter-agency policy initiatives. DOS first issued this regulation in March 2018. CDT filed and joined comments in opposition highlighting its detrimental impact on free speech, association, as well as other issues detailed below. We observed with alarm then and now that this collection request would have an immediate impact on 14.7 million visa applicants, plus millions more third parties whose data could be collaterally reviewed.

Yesterday, we filed a comment with OMB urging them to deny DOS’s proposal. DOS claims this information is sought for “identity resolution and vetting purposes” but has yet to demonstrate the utility of this data or a plan for how the data will be analyzed. We highlighted to OMB that DOS has substantially underestimated the expense of this collection program. Social media identifiers will yield messy and multidimensional data sets, from which meaning will be difficult if not impossible to parse. Given that the average internet user has seven social media profiles, this proposal would introduce significant noise and little if any discernible signal to the visa screening process. We also attached the comment we filed in May which raised the following additional concerns about this collection proposal:

  • The notice is vague and overbroad and will lead to unintentionally incomplete applications and adverse determinations.
  • Social media content is not easily interpreted and will likely lead to the use of problematic algorithmic screening.
  • Social media screening is unlikely to yield relevant security information.
  • DOS’s proposal will chill free speech, association, and inhibit the right to anonymity.

CDT has opposed DOS’s attempts to collect social media identifiers for the last two years. DOS first issued an emergency regulation that from a “subset of visa applicants” (est. 45,000) social media identifiers would be collected in May 2017. CDT joined coalition comments opposing this collection. The regulation was issued in final form for permanent approval in August 2017 and again CDT joined coalition comments opposing the collection.

DOS’s collection proposal is but one of several government efforts to monitor immigrants’ digital lives, including: Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Extreme Vetting Initiative, DOS’s aforementioned existing social media collection, Customs and Border Protection’s searches of digital devices at the border, and the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to retain social media data in Alien Files.
CDT has consistently worked with coalition partners to challenge these programs and will continue to oppose the government’s unnecessary and harmful efforts to collect, retain, share and use social media data.