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Free Expression, Government Surveillance, Privacy & Data

Your Chance to Say No to Proposed Social Media Questioning on US Customs


“Passport and flight number, please. What brings you to the States? Duration of stay?” 

“LinkedIn username? OKCupid handle?”

No, the U.S. Customs officer is not trolling you. If the Department of Homeland Security has its way, these will be standard questions for people visiting the United States.

The DHS recently issued a proposal to ask tourists on visa waivers to share their “online presence” on the I-94W and the online application for the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), including the social networks they use and their corresponding “identifiers”—their handles or account names.

CDT thinks this is a bad idea and is planning to file public comments with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) explaining why. Anyone can submit comments and we encourage those who travel, have friends or family abroad, or just plain care about civil liberties to consider chiming in. Why? Let’s take a look at how asking for social media accounts on the form would play out.

If enacted, social media collection by CBP will invade individual privacy, burden free expression, and expose particular communities to the risk of undue surveillance or ideological exclusion.

This proposal could mean divulging your Reddit and WhatsApp usernames, your LinkedIn and World of Warcraft handles, and your member logins for Dating, Match, Tinder, and Grindr. And of course it’s not *just* your World of Warcraft handle. It’s your reading lists and political leanings, your relationship status and dating preferences, your professional contacts and private diversions, and your relationships—whether intimate, collegial, or complicated.

Are you Muslim? Of course you are, with those Eid al-Fitr celebration postings in your feed. Prepare for extra scrutiny of your holiday plans. Are you an activist? Here’s hoping a CBP officer doesn’t hold your pro-DREAMer profile against you when deciding if you’re eligible for a visa waiver. Are you a journalist? Now DHS has your followers and contacts—and don’t assume because you’re credentialed that they won’t take a peek. And depending on who your sources are, you even could find yourself under suspicion—or wind up on a national security watch list.

Are you an American? Well, U.S. Customs won’t ask you to disclose your online presence. But that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. If you network with family, friends, or colleagues abroad, you could get swept up in the social networking dragnet—and with them, your online presence, too. And, of course, you’ll face similar requests—or demands—when you travel abroad in the future, as countries ramp up their own visa-waiver, visa, and immigration programs to reciprocate the requests their own citizens will face when traveling to the U.S.

If you’re not chilled yet, keep in mind that your data can be shared throughout DHS and across the three-letter federal agencies, including the DEA, FBI, and NSA. As a visa-waiver screening mechanism, social media self-disclosure is nearly pointless, but as an intelligence dragnet, it is priceless. Social media is a rich source of identity information, content, and metadata that can be mined for intelligence about people’s motivations, connections, and movements. That’s why all of the information collected through ESTA and the visa-waiver program is shared, in bulk, with U.S. intelligence agencies, and can be used to seed internal dossiers or generate data requests from social media providers, including requests for users’ account activity and private communications.

If enacted, social media collection by CBP will invade individual privacy, burden free expression, and expose particular communities to the risk of undue surveillance or ideological exclusion. The price of a business trip or family vacation to the United States should not include a fishing expedition into one’s beliefs, reading lists, tastes, and idiosyncrasies by Customs officials—or NSA analysts.

With almost 40 percent of Europeans active on social media and nearly 65 percent of American adults with one or more accounts, many people and communities will be affected by this disclosure request. So again, we encourage all who will be affected to get involved before the DHS notice period closes on August 22, by submitting their own comments at or completing this online survey about the proposal by our friends at Access Now.