The Many Problems With the Trump Administration’s Plan to Hold on to Some Immigrants’ Social Media Posts

The Department of Homeland Security recently issued a public notice that, among other things, indicates the department has expanded the records it retains in immigrants’ files to include “social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results.” Following initial media reporting on the notice, we’ve been hearing from green card holders and naturalized citizens who are worried that DHS will now be monitoring their social media use on an ongoing basis.

That’s not what the notice announces, but it is cause for concern. To understand what the notice means for immigrants, it’s important to start with where it came from. DHS issued it under the Privacy Act, which applies only to citizens and lawful permanent residents, and which requires the government to issue notices like this one when it modifies “systems of records” — i.e., databases with information that could be used to identify individuals.

The system of records at issue here is the “Alien File, Index, and National Tracking System,” which, according to the notice, contains information about immigrants as they progress through the immigration process, including when they change status to become lawful permanent residents or naturalize as U.S. citizens. DHS is updating the system to note that it may now contain, as part of an “Alien” or “A-File,” information about social media handles and search results. Collecting social media information on at least some noncitizens is not an entirely new practice, but now as those individuals change status over time and become green card holders or citizens, the government will retain social media information in the system as part of their A-Files.

DHS has stated that under its existing policy, it accesses “publicly available social media as an aid in determining whether an individual is eligible for an immigration benefit,” but that “the notice did not announce a new policy.”

Still, the notice is troubling for several reasons. First, and most obviously, it is part of a broader plan for social media screening of noncitizens. (In addition, State Department is now collecting social media information from visa applicants and issued a notice in August to make such collection permanent.) This kind of social media surveillance will dampen freedom of expression online, because people self-censor and avoid controversy when they know the government is watching. And such surveillance inevitably sweeps up the social media content of family members, friends, and associates, including U.S. citizens.

This kind of social media surveillance will dampen freedom of expression online, because people self-censor and avoid controversy when they know the government is watching. 

Second, the notice raises concerns about the potential consequences of retaining social media data and related “search results.” The notice doesn’t say which social media platforms the government collects information from, how it is maintained, or whether DHS has standards in place to guarantee that such information is relevant or accurate. But the information may be accessible for decades in people’s A-Files.

Those files are accessible to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which carries out enforcement actions and removals, and Customs and Border Protection, which also enforces the immigration laws and conducts border screening for all international travelers. And the DHS notice confirms that material in A-Files can be shared with federal, state, local, or foreign governments, or even private businesses or other third parties for a range of purposes. That raises significant concerns that inaccurate or misleading social media information — or the undefined “search results” referenced in the notice — could plague noncitizens and naturalized citizens for decades. Experience has shown that the government often targets members of racial and religious minorities with such practices.

Finally, there’s no reason to believe that collecting and retaining this kind of social media information will improve our security. The government seems to think that it can use the information to predict who is likely to commit an act of terrorism, but research and studies debunk that theory. And anyone with bad intentions can conceal them with relative ease.

The bottom line is that the DHS notice is part of a disturbing growth in social media surveillance and monitoring by the government. The period for public comment on the notice ends Oct. 18. We will be making our voice heard, and you should, too.

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Anonymous

It is unfortunate that there are those in our government who cannot be trusted not to abuse the data which they collect. I hope the ACLU will vigorously pursue this in court.

Anonymous

Amen.

Anonymous

As a naturalized citizen who grew up in Eastern Europe, this makes me very nervous. Each of the quasi-communist regimes of Eastern Europe had an enormous "security" apparatus that was routinely spying on its citizens and an offhand criticism of the powers-that-be has landed many people behind bars and on black lists.

This power grab will not stop at immigrants and naturalized citizens.

Anonymous

I am a naturalized citizen who was born and raised in Germany. Th is practice is very disturbing to me for several reasons.
1. Growing up in a country with a dark history (1933 -1945) and the practices of the East Germany's Stasi, using different way to spy on their own people make this sound all to familiar.
2. The more data the government stores/has, the more likely this data can be hacked or leaked. I had to get security clearance for a contractor job at a government facility and my information (7 years worth of personal travel info, family info, names of neighbors/friends, etc.) was hacked along with thousands of other individual's data kept by OPM, a government agency handling sensitive employee data.
3. The misuse of the collected data by the government to undermine opponents, influence elections, use it to manipulate the media and their reporting to their advantage.
4. Basically the loss of individual freedom of expression and speech. Personally, I post on social media as an outlet of my thoughts and opinion and go on with my life. It has no bearing on how I as a citizen in terms of being a father, husband, friend, employee or otherwise.
5. Can the information collected affect my personal life, as in travel abroad and coming back? Apply for student loans, file taxes, get a government job?
This is probably the most troubling news that I have learned about in a while and even worse, it has not been discussed much on the news from what I can tell. What is the government hiding?

Anonymous

Hello! Thank you for your comment. One day they can access your social media info, the next day they can screen through your phone and email records... The way things are going they will have drones following people around soon, for our own “protection” of course. Maybe they will even have an algorithm that predicts thought patterns as subversive based on social media and/or activity and shopping behavior so they can arrest people based on future likelihood for trouble. Step by step is how they do this.

Anonymous

How can I make a public comment. Is there a link or phone number I can use?

Anonymous

There is a link to submit a comment at the top of the notice page: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/09/18/2017-19365/privacy-...

Dr. Joseph Goebbels

The only thing Trump needs to be hanging onto is his toupee on a windy day.

Wendy Gelbart

I'm not surprised that the government is tracking what is said on social media. What bothers me most about this is that naturalized citizens are being treated differently than citizens born in the US. Other than being barred from running for president, I assumed that all citizens should be treated equally. I'm hoping the ACLU will be speaking out and taking action against this newest diminution of individuals' rights.

James Barr

I have reached out to the ACLU of Northern California a couple of times trying to determine whether the ACLU will be filing for any form of injunctive relief to prevent this rule going into effect. Is there any information that can be provided?

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