The Trump administration announced today that it will begin collecting social media information on individuals applying for visas to the United States. The new policy is expected to affect roughly 14 million visitors per year. Visitors will be asked to provide social media user names used on popular platforms during the five years preceding the respective visa application.
The policy will inquire about popular American platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn and will also include several foreign platforms such as China’s Douban and Russia’s VK. Nearly forty countries that are part of the U.S. Visa Waiver Program will be exempted. Those countries include the U.K., France, Japan and Australia.
Citizens from Visa Waiver Countries can travel to the U.S. for tourism or business and stay for up to ninety days without obtaining a visa. The new program however will affect citizens from countries such as China, India and Mexico.
Last year, the Trump administration announced applicants for immigrant visas would be asked to supply their social media data. That policy was expected to affect roughly 700,000 people a year. This proposal would vastly expand the number of people affected.
The U.S. State Department announced a sixty-day-public-comment period on the policy. That period began today. According to the State Department there will be several exemptions, including applicants who have urgent medical or humanitarian travel needs, applicants who are diplomats with urgent government business, or exchange students who are bound by schedules.
President Trump vowed to strengthen the vetting process by which visitors to the U.S. would be subjected to. He made “extreme vetting” part of his travel bans which his administration attempted to institute last year. Those travel bans were struck down and lawsuits regarding the cases are still working their way through courts.
Today’s announcement was harshly criticized by civil liberty groups as well as social media companies. “This attempt to collect a massive amount of information on the social media activity of millions of visa applicants is yet another ineffective and deeply problematic Trump administration plan,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project.
“It will infringe on the rights of immigrants and U.S. citizens by chilling freedom of speech and association, particularly because people will now have to wonder if what they say online will be misconstrued or misunderstood by a government official,” Shamsi added.
Facebook, in a statement said, “We oppose any efforts to force travelers at the border to turn over their private account information, including passwords.”
The State Department defended the policy calling it a necessary step to keep the country safe from potential threats. “Maintaining robust screening standards for visa applicants is a dynamic practice that must adapt to emerging threats,” it said in a statement.
“We already request limited contact information, travel history, family member information, and previous addresses from all visa applicants. Collecting this additional information from visa applicants will strengthen our process for vetting these applicants and confirming their identity.”
Photo by Jason Howie via Flickr