US customs allows collection of social media data from travelers
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CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 23 : A member of Homeland Security walks with his K-9 dog as travelers wait in the TSA security line at O'Hare International Airport on December 23, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. O'hare International Airport is one of the busiest hubs in the nation during the weeks surrounding Christmas and New Years. Photo credit: Joshua Lott/Getty Images Israel

Photo Credit: Joshua Lott/Getty Images Israel

The measure is voluntary, but reflects a hardening of entry processes since 2015 for foreign visitors

As of this week, “foreign travelers arriving in the United States on the visa waiver program have been presented with an ‘optional’ request to ‘enter information associated with your online presence,’” according to Politico, which broke the story the US government then later confirmed.

Since the program is (for now) voluntary, it is not clear how exactly it will discourage people from professing views that the Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) officers would make note of, or discourage them from coming to the US at all.

The provision applies to travelers entering through the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) under the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), though travelers entering on the ground through Canada and Mexico are exempt and of course so are US citizens.

(A list of designated VWP countries can be found here.)

ESTA applications, if approved, are good for two years, including multiple trips to and from the US within that time, though the VWP admission approval covers a period of 90 days or less.

The initial proposal for amending ESTA was put forward in June, after several Middle Eastern countries were dropped from the VWP in accordance with new US national security laws this past January. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) described the measures as a means to “enhance the existing investigative process and provide DHS greater clarity and visibility to possible nefarious activity and connections.”

List of the profile options. Image Credit: esta.cbp.dhs.gov

List of the profile options. Image Credit: esta.cbp.dhs.gov

The Internet Association – representing Google, Twitter, and Facebook – came out strongly against the proposal, alongside a number of civil liberties groups. All of the opponents argued the measure chilled free speech and would lead to reciprocal, punitive measures by other countries citing the DHS language as precedent.

Social media companies have been taking steps to limit social media monitoring of their users by US government agencies and private companies, most notably Twitter. There is very little they can do here, though, and cannot expect the incoming administration to be sympathetic to their arguments. The defunct National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, which President-elect Donald Trump‘s supporters have cited in defense of his comments about increased border controls and faith tests, may be such a model and legally would get around faith tests by applying measures on a country-by-country basis, as the January 2016 VWP changes did under the Obama Administration.

If anything, federal contractors offering their services to the CPB can expect to see new work coming in due to the expanded focus on litmus tests and electronic verification of both travelers and immigrants. And the Big Three, having defeated some major lawsuits in 2016 that tried to hold them responsible for jihadists using their platforms, will face even more in 2017.

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