A privacy coalition that includes dozens of mostly far-left organizations such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Brennan Center for Justice has demanded the federal government drop a plan to monitor the social media posts of visa applicants.
The coalition includes the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Electronic Frontier Foundation, World Privacy Forum, Patient Privacy Rights, Human Rights Watch, Immigrant Legal Resource Center and Muslim Justice League.
EPIC said in a letter the State Department’s plan to collect “social media identifiers” from visa applicants would “undermine First Amendment rights of speech, expression and association.”
“Social media monitoring raises serious privacy and civil liberties issues. EPIC previously opposed the State Department’s expansion of social media collection as well as a similar proposal by the Department of Homeland Security,” the organization charged.
The proposal is part of President Trump’s effort to prevent terrorists from entering the country.
In the letter to the Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs Visa Office, the groups said the government should drop the proposal to collect information, specifically “social media identifiers, telephone numbers and email addresses used in the last five years.”
“The proposal, if implemented, will reveal private information about travelers that is irrelevant to their suitability for entry to the United States, and will expose data about their families, friends and business associates in the U.S.,” the letter charges. “Further, the context in which these policies are being developed – and the methods used to examine what is collected – suggest that they will be implemented in ways that discriminate on the basis of national origin, religion, or ideology.”
The benefits to national security, the groups claimed, are “speculative.”
“Social media communications have context-specific meanings that are notoriously difficult to interpret, and are more apt to raise false positives than to identify real security threats,” the letter continued. “Further, collecting social media data – platforms and identifiers – will have a deleterious impact on the speech and privacy of applicants as well as the Americans with whom they communicate.”
The letter signatories cite the case in 2012 of a British traveler who was refused entry.
He had written on Twitter that he was going to “destroy America,” meaning he was going to party. He also joked that he would “dig up Marilyn Monroe’s grave.”
“This is to say nothing of the challenges posed by non-verbal communication on social media. On Facebook, for instance, users can react to a posting with a range of emojis. The actual meaning of these emojis is highly contextual,” the letter pointed out. “If a Facebook user posts an article about the FBI persuading young, isolated Muslims to make statements in support of ISIS, and another user ‘loves’ the article, is he sending appreciation that the article was posted, signaling support for the FBI’s practices, or sending love to a friend whose family has been affected?”
It gets even more complicated for journalists, the letter noted.
“Take the example of a foreign journalist who ‘favorites’ a provocative tweet from an ISIS follower in order to find it again more easily for a piece of writing – will that be taken as support for the poster’s positions?”
The letter claims the government cannot provide evidence that social media screening works and is “worth expanding.”
The proposal would chill speech, the groups contend, “particularly of the political or religious variety.”
“Visa applicants will surely sanitize their own postings and internet presence to ensure that nothing online would provide cause for further scrutiny or suspicion by a rushed consular officer, or an imprecise algorithm. The same caution will afflict people on American soil, including U.S. citizens and residents, who often correspond with those seeking entry into the United States and are protected by the First Amendment.”
Significantly, the rule would require applicants to disclose social media monikers under which they may have written anonymously.
“‘Each identifier used’ … includes social media handles that an applicant does not wish to associate with her name.”
The groups also have concerns about discrimination and data-mining.