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Is the Government Tracking Your Social Media Activity?

Social media icons on a smartphone screen.
Suspicionless monitoring of social media accounts chills speech and threatens our right to live without fear of constant government scrutiny.
Social media icons on a smartphone screen.
Shaiba Rather,
Nadine Strossen Fellow, ACLU
Layla Al,
Paralegal,
ACLU’s National Security Project
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April 24, 2023

The Biden administration has been quietly deploying and expanding programs that surveil what people say on social media, using tools that allow agents and analysts to invisibly monitor the vast amount of protected speech that occurs online. For years, these kinds of tools have been increasingly used for a range of controversial law enforcement and intelligence purposes. But some of the most troubling programs continuously monitor the social media posts of non-citizens to decide who gets to live, study, or stay in the United States.

If you’re an immigrant or visa-holder in the United States and believe you’ve been affected by this social media monitoring, the ACLU wants to hear your story.

Social media accounts are extensions of ourselves. A single social media account can reveal a map of our family and friends; a catalogue of our personal preferences and political views; and, of course, a comprehensive diary of our thoughts and speech. Given the trove of information available online, social media surveillance threatens our rights to speak freely and live without fear of constant government scrutiny.

Through our ongoing FOIA lawsuit, the ACLU has obtained documents showing that a wide range of government agencies are monitoring and retaining the speech of U.S. citizens and non-citizens alike — whether or not those individuals are suspected of any criminal wrongdoing. Agencies continue to pour millions of dollars into technology that enables this sustained tracking of social media activity.

In recent years, the government has ramped up its efforts to monitor the social media activities of non-citizens. At least two Department of Homeland Security (DHS) programs involve the monitoring of non-citizens who have come to the U.S. for school, work, or other reasons. Under the Visa Lifecycle Vetting Program, DHS monitors the online activities of individuals in the U.S. on student or business visas — from the moment they apply for a visa throughout their stay in the United States. Under another program known as Continuous Immigration Vetting, DHS may monitor social media and a number of other sources for “derogatory information” about non-citizens, starting when a person applies for an immigration benefit until they become a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Who Social Media Surveillance Hurts

The government’s social media surveillance can have immense consequences. For example, in August 2019, CBP officers denied entry to Ismail Ajjawi, a 17-year-old Palestinian student from Lebanon traveling to start his freshman year at Harvard. Ismail, like other non-citizens hoping to enter the United States, was likely subject to the State Department’s policy requiring nearly all visa applicants to disclose their social media handles. After an hours-long interrogation about Ismail’s political views, religious affiliations, and friends’ social media posts, Ismail’s visa was canceled and he was promptly deported.

While Ismail was eventually allowed to pursue his studies in the U.S., the government continues to engage in the suspicionless social media monitoring of non-citizens, including many Black and Brown immigrants and visitors who want to become citizens or pursue degrees here. Once DHS collects this information, it may use it to guide immigration decisions, including those involving deportation, visa revocations, and naturalization.

Suspicionless monitoring of social media infringes the rights of people who are living in the U.S. and are protected by the First Amendment. Individuals who suspect they are being surveilled may fear expressing themselves freely out of concerns over government scrutiny or retaliation. This is a loss for the people whose speech is chilled and for all those who benefit from vibrant online conversations and exchanges of ideas.

Government surveillance also often disproportionally targets racial and religious minority communities and those who dissent against government policies. The ACLU has called on both DHS and the Justice Department to reform their policies that allow biased profiling and investigations. And of course, surveillance undermines our basic notions of privacy. Even individuals who post publicly online do not expect the government to digitally archive their online activity without any suspicion, or to scrutinize their friends, contacts, and associations on social media platforms.

Social Media Surveillance is Ineffective and Inefficient

Social media surveillance is also ineffective and lacks empirical support. Analyzing social media is notoriously difficult, given the sheer volume of information and the many ways in which individuals’ online messages can be misinterpreted — especially when those posts span many different languages and cultures. One office within DHS recently rejected a proposal to expand the agency’s collection of social media information after concluding that the monitoring had little utility. The Biden administration has also reportedly considered halting social media vetting for some categories of refugees given concerns about “the efficiency of the process.”

Given the harms of this surveillance, and its demonstrated lack of effectiveness, DHS should end its existing social media programs. Until then, we need to know more about how the government monitors our social media and the impact of this surveillance on communities and individuals.

If you think you are or have been affected by this surveillance, we want to hear from you. Please fill out this form or email us directly at sms_intake@aclu.org. The ACLU will keep strictly confidential any information you provide and will not share it outside the ACLU without your permission.

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