DHS wants to snoop on travelers' Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts


The Department of Homeland Security thinks that it’s time to update travel forms for the modern age. Along with asking travelers to the U.S. for their names, passports numbers and address while in country, DHS would now also like travelers to cough up links to their social media accounts.

That’s according to a government notice published this week to the Federal Register, spotted by technologist Joseph Lorenzo Hall. Customs and Border Patrol wants to add the following to ESTA, a visa waiver application, and to Form I-94W, the form that non-citizens have to fill out when entering and leaving the country:

“Please enter information associated with your online presence—Provider/Platform—Social media identifier.”

That is an awfully open-ended request! As phrased that could include your Twitter handle, the url for your Facebook page, your OkCupid or Grindr handle, your Instagram account, your Tumblr, your Vine account, your Snapchat, your Reddit account, your Pinterest page, your PornHub account, and any random messaging forums in which you take part. Where does it end? Must you include an account if it’s private?

Oh, but wait a second, the notice says that the handing over of social media identifiers will be “optional.”

It will be an optional data field to request social media identifiers to be used for vetting purposes, as well as applicant contact information. Collecting social media data will enhance the existing investigative process and provide DHS greater clarity and visibility to possible nefarious activity and connections by providing an additional tool set which analysts and investigators may use to better analyze and investigate the case.

It seems clear that the government is hoping the information would help it spot people who might reveal on their social media accounts devious plans for their time in the U.S. For example, in 2012, two British tourists got booted upon their arrival in Los Angeles because one of them had joked on Twitter about “coming to the United States to dig up the grave of Marilyn Monroe” and said that he planned to “destroy America” (he meant it in the sense of “party a lot”).

But, given that the field is optional, someone like an illegal drug importer would probably just leave this field blank, making it not especially useful. Instead, it might, in the long run, be a way to flag “nefarious” and/or privacy-minded travelers: they’ll be the only ones not willing to hand over their Facebook name.

Anyway, the government is accepting comment on this proposal for the next 59 days here.

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