Embassy responds to extensive privacy probing for US visa

A new US State Department policy that went into effect on Friday, 31 May will require all those applying for a visa to the United States to provide their personal social media account details over the past five years to the immigration authorities.

Agitated potential travelers to the US have contacted us for clarification on this news. In view of growing public interest on this issue, we contacted the US embassy in Kuwait and received the following clarification.

The Department of State has updated its immigrant and nonimmigrant visa application forms to request additional information, including social media identifiers, from most US visa applicants. National security is our top priority when adjudicating visa applications. We already request certain contact information, travel history, family member information, and previous addresses from all visa applicants. Collecting this additional information from visa applicants will strengthen our process for vetting these applicants and confirming their identity.

In response to whether the Consular Section of the US Embassy Kuwait had already started collecting social media handles or identifiers from visa applicants, the answer was a categorical, “Yes”. Effective 30 May, the Department of State has updated its immigrant and nonimmigrant visa application forms worldwide to request additional information, including social media identifiers, from most US visa applicants.

Detailing the mechanism for collecting social media information from visa applicants, the embassy said: We updated our nonimmigrant visa online application form (DS-160), the paper back-up version of the nonimmigrant visa application (DS-156), and the online immigrant visa application form (DS-260) to collect social media identifiers.

The visa application form will now list specific social media platforms for which identifiers are being requested.  A social media ‘handle’ or ‘identifier’ is any name used by the individual on social media platforms including, but not limited to, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The measures, which are part of new security checks, will require applicants to submit any information about their social media accounts, for the past five years.Elaborating on this, a statement from the State Department said: “We are constantly working to find mechanisms to improve our screening processes to protect US citizens, while supporting legitimate travel to the United States.”

The visa application form will list the specific social media platforms for which identifiers are being requested,” the statement explained. Such account information would give the government access to photos, locations, dates of birth, dates of milestones and other personal data commonly shared on social media.

The decision seems to be an extension of the September 2017 measure in which the Homeland Security Department called for the surveillance of social media use of all immigrants, including naturalized citizens through a proposed regulation. During the Obama administration, the State Department began making requests to visa applicants to voluntarily submit their social media information.

Human rights activists and immigration lawyers have spoken out against the new visa rule.  Visa applicants could be dissuaded by the added requirement, and may see it as a barrier to enter the United States, and an intrusion into their personal lives.

Speaking about the latest developments, the Director of American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, Hina Shamsi said: “This is a dangerous and problematic proposal, which does nothing to protect security concerns but raises significant privacy concerns and First Amendment issues for citizens and immigrants.”

The social media web is an intrinsic part of today’s modern citizens across the world, where they store a host of information including their contacts, associations, habits and preferences, she said, adding, that the government has been unable to prove that social media can provide reliable indications that identify a security threat. “In the absence of any such indicators, what we’ve seen domestically and abroad is government officials penalizing people’s speech, religious affiliation and other conduct,” she added.