The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sneakily modified its immigration policy last week. The new update means people traveling to the US will be forced to disclose their social media details and search results, starting October 18. Buzzfeed News broke the story on Tuesday.
The notice, published in the Federal Register, expanded the categories of immigration records to include (among other things) "social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results".
They will also update record source categories to include "publically available information obtained from the internet, public records, public institutions, interviewees, commercial data providers, and information obtained and disclosed pursuant to information sharing agreements".
It won't just affect immigrants coming into the US though. Green Card holders and naturalized citizens are included in this new policy, not to mention any friends, family, and co-workers they communicate with online.
Adam Schwartz, an attorney with the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Buzzfeed News, "We see this as part of a larger process of high-tech surveillance of immigrants and more and more people being subjected to social media screening."
The DHS is embracing this policy in the name of national security. But, not only is it an affront to personal privacy and the first amendment (a person's right to free speech), it's not very good at detecting would-be terrorists, say its critics.
"It's very difficult to successfully use social media to determine what people are going or not going to do," Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center’s liberty and national security program, said to Buzzfeed News.
"When you look at all the different ways in which we use communication tools, and social media is pretty different, very truncated. People use emojis, they use short form, sometimes it’s difficult to know what something means."
The debate goes back to June 2016, when the DHS under the Obama administration announced plans to collect immigrants' social media info on arrival. This provoked an uproar among tech companies and civil liberties groups.
But these policy ideas weren't laid to rest. Under Trump, US border agents have, according to reports, checked people's Facebook pages before letting them into the country, and, in February 2017, secretary of Homeland Security, John Kelly, once again brought up the issue of social media passwords.
"We want to say, for instance, which websites do you visit, and give us your passwords, so we can see what they do on the internet," said Kelly at a House Homeland Security hearing. "If they don't want to give us that information, they don't come in."
It is worth pointing out that it is rare for the DHS to ban any single person from entering the country based on one piece of information. Still, government access to this level of personal information raises tough questions about privacy and free speech, and how that data can be used.