Cus­toms seeks for­eign­ers’ data for so­cial me­dia

The Washington Times Daily - - POLITICS - BY AN­DREW BLAKE

Cus­toms of­fi­cials have be­gun ask­ing for­eign visi­tors for their so­cial me­dia user­names be­fore en­ter­ing the coun­try, qui­etly im­ple­ment­ing a se­cu­rity mea­sure that was hotly con­tested by pri­vacy ad­vo­cates and the tech sec­tor alike when pro­posed ear­lier this year.

The pa­per­work pre­sented to for­eign­ers wish­ing to travel to the U.S. through its Visa Waiver Pro­gram was up­dated last week to in­clude a new, op­tional ques­tion that asks ap­pli­ca­tions to “en­ter in­for­ma­tion associated with your on­line pres­ence,” Politico re­ported first.

Would-be trav­el­ers who fill out the form on­line are now given a drop-down menu con­tain­ing the names of 13 so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies and an “other” op­tion, as well as an ad­ja­cent en­try field where they are asked to sup­ply their cor­re­spond­ing user­name.

The com­pa­nies listed in­clude so­cial me­dia’s largest, in­clud­ing Face­book and Twit­ter, as well as pho­to­shar­ing site Flickr, cod­ing repos­i­tory GitHub, and VKon­takte, a net­work used widely across Russia.

The op­tional ques­tion only ap­pears on the Elec­tronic Sys­tem for Travel Au­tho­riza­tion (ESTA) form given by U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pa­trol of­fi­cials to a lim­ited cat­e­gory of for­eign­ers el­i­gi­ble to travel into the U.S. through its Visa Waiver Pro­gram. The pro­gram is avail­able to trav­el­ers from 38 pre­s­e­lected coun­tries, and al­lows suc­cess­ful ap­pli­cants to stay in the U.S. for up to 90 days for busi­ness or plea­sure without ob­tain­ing a visa.

The form it­self is used to as­sess “law en­force­ment or se­cu­rity risk,” ac­cord­ing to the CBP web­site, and a spokes­woman said the pol­icy change is meant to “iden­tify po­ten­tial threats,” Politico re­ported.

“Col­lect­ing so­cial me­dia data will en­hance the ex­ist­ing in­ves­tiga­tive process,” the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity said when it pro­posed ad­ding the ques­tion in June.

The pro­posed re­vi­sion was quickly panned by crit­ics, how­ever, and in Au­gust a coali­tion com­posed of more than two dozens rights groups in­clud­ing the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union and Elec­tronic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion urged the government to aban­don what it de­scribed as a highly in­va­sive tac­tic.

Sim­i­lar ob­jec­tions were raised by the In­ter­net As­so­ci­a­tion, a trade group com­posed of com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Google, Face­book and Twit­ter, among oth­ers, as well as David Kaye, the U.N. Spe­cial Rap­por­teur on the pro­mo­tion and pro­tec­tion of the right to free­dom of opin­ion and ex­pres­sion.

“There are very few rules about how that in­for­ma­tion is be­ing col­lected, main­tained [and] dis­sem­i­nated to other agen­cies, and there are no guide­lines about lim­it­ing the government’s use of that in­for­ma­tion,” Michael W. Macleod-Ball, chief of staff for the ACLU’s Wash­ing­ton of­fice, told Politico anew in the wake of the ques­tion be­ing added. “While the government cer­tainly has a right to col­lect some in­for­ma­tion … it would be nice if they would fo­cus on the pri­vacy con­cerns some ad­vo­cacy groups have long ex­pressed.”

De­spite the ques­tion be­ing op­tional, other crit­ics ques­tioned the prece­dent it could set abroad.

“Coun­tries — in­clud­ing those without the United States’ due process pro­tec­tions — will now be­lieve they are more war­ranted in de­mand­ing so­cial me­dia in­for­ma­tion from visi­tors that could jeop­ar­dize visi­tors’ safety,” added Abi­gail Slater, gen­eral coun­sel for the In­ter­net As­so­ci­a­tion.

The ad­di­tion of the so­cial me­dia ques­tion comes amid an on­go­ing ef­fort to keep ter­ror­ist groups from us­ing plat­forms like Twit­ter and Face­book to gain and rad­i­cal­ize re­cruits. In July, a re­port pub­lished Ford­ham Law School’s Cen­ter on Na­tional Se­cu­rity said roughly 9-in-10 of the 101 ter­ror­ism cases brought by U.S. prose­cu­tors between March 2014 and June 2016 in­volved sus­pects who used so­cial me­dia.

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