The Washington Post

A new fol­lower: The gov­ern­ment

Why does it need the so­cial me­dia han­dles of ev­ery visa ap­pli­cant?

- U.S. News · US Politics · Politics · United States of America · U.S. State Department · U.S. government · Barack Obama · White House · Donald Trump · New York County, NY

THERE’S A new re­quire­ment for trav­el­ing to the United States: Turn over your so­cial me­dia ac­count names — all of them, from the past five years, pos­si­bly to be stored for decades more. A State Depart­ment pol­icy that went into ef­fect re­cently re­quir­ing visa ap­pli­cants to pro­vide au­thor­i­ties with their on­line iden­ti­fiers is, in some ways, not a star­tling change. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion al­ready asked some vis­i­tors to vol­un­tar­ily pro­vide their plat­form han­dles, and even when ac­count names are not shared, au­thor­i­ties ob­vi­ously have the where­withal to seek out ap­pli­cants’ pub­lic ac­tiv­ity on­line. Of­fi­cials in this ad­min­is­tra­tion had also started to re­quire some cat­e­gories of visa ap­pli­cants to hand over the data. That af­fected about 65,000 peo­ple per year. To­day’s pol­icy will af­fect about 15 mil­lion.

It is the vast reach of the rule that has alarmed ob­servers, along with the ab­sence of an ex­pla­na­tion of how the in­for­ma­tion will be used. There are cer­tainly cir­cum­stances un­der which con­sular of­fi­cials re­view­ing visa ap­pli­ca­tions would want to look at a would-be traveler’s so­cial me­dia to ver­ify a fact or to fol­low up on a se­cu­rity con­cern. But sys­tem­at­i­cally re­view­ing the ac­counts of any­one who seeks to en­ter the United States is, ac­cord­ing to the gov­ern­ment’s own pilot pro­grams, un­likely to be ef­fec­tive — and likely to chill speech on com­mu­ni­ca­tions plat­forms es­sen­tial to ev­ery­day life.

The chilling risk is height­ened un­der a White House that has given peo­ple rea­son to think they should be care­ful. Pres­i­dent Trump started his cam­paign by declar­ing that Mex­i­cans are rapists. He kicked off his time in of­fice by try­ing to keep many Mus­lims from en­ter­ing the coun­try. One cri­te­rion his ad­min­is­tra­tion hopes to con­sider in an over­hauled im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem is whether a cit­i­zen-to-be has

demon­strated an in­ter­est in “pa­tri­otic as­sim­i­la­tion.”

A Ye­meni jour­nal­ist work­ing for the As­so­ci­ated Press was re­cently de­nied a visa to travel to New York to ac­cept the Pulitzer Prize for in­ter­na­tional re­port­ing. The State Depart­ment had no com­ment on the rea­son. A ne­go­tia­tor for Pales­tinian rights who has long been vis­it­ing this coun­try also had her ap­pli­ca­tion re­jected.

The se­cu­rity im­per­a­tive of any vet­ting mech­a­nism must be weighed against the risk it poses to keep­ing the United States open to peo­ple of all coun­tries, cul­tures and po­lit­i­cal per­sua­sions. Be­fore it asks for mil­lions of peo­ple’s per­sonal in­for­ma­tion, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion should prove it has gone through that cal­cu­la­tion and come out on the right side. Its record makes that im­pos­si­ble to take on faith.

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