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Free Expression, Privacy & Data

DHS Proposal to Ask for Social Media Identifiers a Threat to Privacy & Free Speech

The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) has submitted comments to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) opposing a proposal by DHS to ask some categories of visitors to the United States to volunteer information about their “online presence” and social media use. The program would be administered through U.S. Customs and Border Protection and pertain to the visa-waiver records (Form 1-94W) and applications for an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). CDT also organized a coalition in opposition to the proposal, which also issued a letter to DHS.  

“This proposal would move the world of ‘security theater’ online. Not only would the program be unnecessarily invasive, it would also be incredibly ineffective and expensive,” said Emma Llansó, Director of CDT’s Free Expression Project. “Social networks also go well beyond the individual account, making any such attempt to collect social media identifiers a threat to all of us with an online presence.”

In CDT’s comments and the coalition letter the fundamental problems with the DHS proposal are highlighted. These major problems include:

  • Online identifier collection is highly invasive;
  • The scale and scope of this program would lead to a significant expansion of intelligence activity;
  • Online identifer collection would create disproportionate risks for a number of communities;
  • Online identifier collection would be ineffective for screening visa-waiver applicants; and
  • Social media analysis would be prohibitively expensive.

“All the information collected through the visa waiver program is shared with U.S. intelligence agencies. This magnifies the problem and creates another avenue for overly-intrusive government surveillance,” Llanso added. “And Americans will be swept up in this data collection as DHS analyzes the connections that travelers have to family, friends, and business associates in the U.S.”

While DHS says that providing social media identifiers would be optional, it is unlikely an applicant to the Visa Waiver Program would view it that way, since travelers face significant delay and expense if they are denied a visa waiver. CDT, along with other members of the coalition, will continue to advocate for DHS to withdraw their proposal.