Silicon Valley to US: Asking for foreign travelers’ social media accounts creates a “chilling effect”

Stay out of private lives.
Stay out of private lives.
Image: Reuters/Wolfgang Rattay
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Asking foreign visitors for their social media handles is a violation of privacy, according to the Internet Association. The trade group represents Google, Facebook, Twitter and other tech titans.

In a letter Monday, Aug. 22, the association denounced the US government’s latest security measure: An optional new field on US entry and departure immigration forms that asks non-citizen travelers to list their social media accounts. The proposal was open for comment from June 23 to Aug 22.

Social media accounts can offer sensitive information about beliefs, gender and sexuality, among other things, which security personnel wouldn’t necessarily have the right to investigate without just cause, argued the Internet Association (IA). It warned of ”a chilling effect on use of social media networks, online sharing and, ultimately, free speech online,” and cautioned that the US could set a bad example for countries with far worse human rights records. The IA also questioned the cost and time it would take to analyze travelers’ accounts—queries that the Department of Homeland Security has not yet addressed.

The US government says that the proposed measure will help it detect “possible nefarious activity and connections” but the method is not without fault. Not only is the field is optional, but there’s also no way to stop anyone from lying. As Quartz’s Alice Truong previously explained, basic privacy precautions kept one of the 2015 San Bernardino attackers above suspicion until too late:

The US government came under criticism after a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, because one of the assailants, Tashfeen Malik, had passed three background checks for her visa despite using social media to voice support for jihad. Those messages, however, were created under a pseudonym and sent privately to her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook. The State Department has since said that “obviously things went wrong” in the visa process.

The Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other organizations have also raised doubts about the measure stifling freedom of expression, according to Politico. However, a spokeswoman for US Customs and Border Protection told Politico that the agency is reviewing comments on its proposal and stressed that any disclosure requested from travelers would be “optional.”

“The choice to hand over this information is technically voluntary,” Nathan White, digital rights organization Access Now’s senior legislative manager, told the site in a statement. “But the process to enter the U.S. is confusing, and it’s likely that most visitors will fill out the card completely rather than risk additional questions from intimidating, uniformed officers—the same officers who will decide which of your jokes are funny and which ones make you a security risk.”