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New Documents Underscore Problems of ‘Social Media Vetting’ of Immigrants

Phone Illustration Social Media
Phone Illustration Social Media
Manar Waheed,
Senior Legislative and Advocacy Counsel,
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January 3, 2018

Documents recently obtained by the Daily Beast reinforce the many problems with the Department of Homeland Security’s attempts at surveillance of immigrants’ social media posts.

“Social media vetting” is one part of the Trump administration’s program of “extreme vetting” of immigrants. The Obama administration began the practice of monitoring visa applicants’ social media accounts, but President Trump has hastily and dramatically expanded it. This kind of social media surveillance can impact people applying for visas from abroad, immigrants in the United States, and U.S. citizens with online connections to applicants.

The Trump administration is moving forward with its social media vetting initiatives despite the absence of any evidence that they can be carried out fairly and effectively. In February 2017, the DHS inspector general issued a report raising concerns that pilot programs for monitoring immigrants’ social media lacked criteria for measuring their success. It also highlighted the difficulty of analyzing the massive amounts of data gleaned from social media data dumps.

These concerns appear to have been ignored.

In May, the government formally began the “extreme vetting” of certain visa applicants, asking for social media handles as part of the immigration process for applicants subjectively deemed suspect by immigration agents. In September, DHS made clear that it is retaining the social media data of some immigrants — and by default, that of their contacts — throughout their immigration process, possibly for decades to come. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a DHS component, also recently announced its intention to recruit tech companies to create an automated system to conduct searches of immigrants’ accounts.

The newly obtained DHS documents highlight concerns that civil rights groups have been voicing with increasing alarm: The “vetting” program is ripe for discrimination and profiling, lacks safeguards to protect against arbitrary implementation, and is ineffective and wasteful. Additionally, the documents contain no hint of the impact of social media surveillance on U.S. citizens and others living in the United States, including the chilling effect on their free speech and expression.

These documents include findings from pilot programs conducted by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, another DHS component, that are particularly revealing. They indicate that attempts at social media vetting produced few to no results, with only a smattering of posts flagged, despite the fact that the threshold for flagging was, by USCIS’s own admission, low. One document reads:

“If USCIS officers need to determine which social media records are potential national security concerns, and which are not, they will need training and clear guidance.”

So, a program ostensibly designed to identify “national security concerns” has been underway, apparently without basic standards or guidance as to what constitutes such a “concern.”

The ACLU and other civil rights groups have long expressed concern that these programs will focus unfairly on Muslim immigrants and immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. The new documents underscore that concern. For example, one USCIS document states, “This sample will allow for statistical representation from various nationalities to include high risk populations such as [REDACTED] nationals.” Yet it offers no evidence that these nationalities are actually “high risk.”

Elsewhere, USCIS writes that it is working to expand social media vetting “beginning with individuals from certain countries of concern.” It even uses the name Mohammed in explaining why names should be entered into the system in Arabic, because “Mohammed can be spelled dozens of ways in English.”

Tellingly, it mentions no other languages.

Finally, the documents fail to address the impact of these programs on the rights of everyone living in America. Nowhere does DHS acknowledge that the programs sweep up the information of U.S. citizens and others. They identify no guidance governing how that information might be stored, used, or shared with other federal, state, or local agencies. They expose a failure to even ensure that a given social media account belongs to the applicant being vetted. And they lack any consideration of how these programs will affect the First Amendment rights of people whose speech might be chilled by the knowledge they’re being monitored.

These documents don’t reveal anything particularly surprising, but they are still alarming. The government is speeding ahead with social media surveillance, without regard for the concerns that have been raised, the integrity of our immigration system, or the civil rights of those impacted — which may include virtually anyone living in America.

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