To get US visa, applicants must now reveal social media handles

Visa applicants to the US will now be required to reveal their social media accounts such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as part of new security checks introduced by the US Department of State.

“This update — which we initially announced last year in the Federal Register — is a result of the President’s March 6, 2017, Memorandum on Implementing Heightened Screening and Vetting of Applications for Visas and other Immigration Benefits and Section 5 of Executive Order 13780 regarding implementing uniform screening and vetting standards for visa applications,” the statement read.

“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,” the statement added.

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 visa application form will list the specific social media platforms for which identifiers are being requested,” the statement explained.

The new State Department policy that went into effect on Friday requires visa applicants to the United States to submit any information about their social media accounts in the past five years.  This account information would allow government access to personal data commonly shared on social media including photos, locations, dates of birth, dates of milestones among others. The State Department released a statement wherein they pointed out that the common visa procedures included requests for contact information, travel history, family member information, and previous addresses from all visa applicants.  “We are constantly working to find mechanisms to improve our screening processes to protect US citizens, while supporting legitimate travel to the United States,” read the statement.

In March 2017, President Trump asked the secretary of state, the attorney general, the secretary of homeland security and the director of national intelligence to put in effect “a uniform baseline for screening and vetting standards and procedures,” according to a memo published in the Federal Register. Requiring information about the social media accounts of visa applicants was part of that.

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.

Speaking on Sunday of the latest developments, Elora Mukherjee, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, said, “This seems to be part and parcel of the same effort to have an extraordinary broad surveillance of citizens and noncitizens.”

“Given the scope of the surveillance efforts, it is hard to find a rational basis for the broad surveillance the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security have been doing for almost two years,” she pointed out.

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.

“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,” Hina Shamsi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, said on Sunday. “Research shows that this kind of monitoring has chilling effects, meaning that people are less likely to speak freely and connect with each other in online communities that are now essential to modern life.”

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.

Ms. Shamsi added that this kind of requirement will result in suspicion of surveillance of travelers and their networks of friends, families and business associates, and the government had failed to explain how it would use this information.

Further, she noted 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.