EFF, others expand protest U.S. plans to vet social media for visas

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and other civil liberties groups are protesting the U.S. State Department’s proposal to collect social media profiles from Visa holders. 

Privacy and civil-liberties advocates continue to do battle with the U.S. government over its plans to require all foreigners entering the country to divulge social media and other personal contact information.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and 54 civil liberties organizations joined together this week to add comments to those written by the Brennan Center for Justice and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) protesting the U.S. State Department’s proposal is to collect social media identifiers, phone numbers and e-mail addresses used in the last five years from all visa applicants.

Civil liberties groups are protesting State Department plans to check Visa applicants’ social media profiles.

The plan–unveiled in April–would apply to applicants seeking both immigrant and non-immigrant visas to the United States. If enacted, these applicants would have to disclose their use of websites and applications such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Pinterest, as well as provide other aforementioned contact information. The EFF views the move as especially targeting people from countries the State Department considers unfriendly to U.S. interests, demonstrating clear discrimination and racial profiling, Ruiz said.

[Read: DHS announces New Cybersecurity Strategy]

“The proposal undermines civil liberties for everyone, unjustifiably burdening Muslims in particular,” EFF writer David Ruis said in a blog post Tuesday that once again speaks out against the move.

Indeed, the EFF has been opposed to the plan since it was first unveiled, claiming in initial public opposition that it “invades the free speech and privacy rights of foreign visitors to the U.S., as well as the rights of their American friends, families and professional associates.”

Latest voice of opposition

The latest comments express the view that the proposal violates First-Amendment rights of speech, expression and association while also revealing private information that has no bearing on a person’s suitability to enter the United States, according to the coalition statement sent to the State Department.

The more than 50 organizations that oppose the plan believe it “excessively burdens” visa applicants for “speculative national security benefits.” Indeed, U.S. government has repeatedly claimed that social-media collection would curb attacks on U.S. soil, but has shown no evidence to prove this belief, according to the EFF.

“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 coalition wrote in its comments. “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.”

This is one of several key reasons opponents have for believing that subjecting foreigners to social-media info collection is a bad idea. In addition to the notion that social-media information is easy to misinterpret, the groups also believe that the move will hinder free expression not just among visitors, but also even among citizens in the United States.

They also think the move reeks of discrimination against foreigners based on national origin, religion or ideology when there is no proof that people are threats to the United States because of these types of identifiers. “There is no evidence that an applicant’s national origin or religion reflects a propensity for terrorism,” opponents said in their comments.

Additionally, the EFF and other civil liberties groups believe that collecting social media information could lead to bulk data mining and algorithmic analysis efforts, thus adding fuel to the fire of the already heated debate over privacy and discrimination concerns and perhaps resulting in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) targeting people unjustly. “This is a mandate that is vague and sweeps far beyond visa decisions,” opponents wrote in their comments.

Ongoing fight for civil liberty, privacy rights

This week’s new comments against the social-media collection mark the fifth time the EFF and other groups have voiced their opposition to various plans by the U.S. government to require this type of info from those entering the country, efforts that seem to be on the increase lately under the current administration.

In August 2016, EFF opposed the plan by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to request social media handles—like those from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat—from U.S. visitors from visa waiver countries. The fight was in vain, however, as the Office of Management and Budget approved the proposal in December 2016.

In April 2017, a coalition led by Asian Americans Advancing Justice and backed by the EFF opposed another plan by the CBP to ask visa applicants from China about their social media identifiers.

The EFF also joined coalition comments—led by the Center for Democracy & Technology in October 2017 opposing the DHS’s plan to indefinitely store the social media information of immigrants–including that of lawful permanent residents and naturalized U.S. citizens–in government files.

Finally, in June and then again in October 2017, EFF joined coalition comments—also led by the Brennan Center—to fight another expansion of social media information collection when the State Department empowered consular officials to ask visa applicants they considered “suspicious” about the social media platforms they use.

The current proposal on the table expands that last power even further to ask all visa applicants this information, something that not only will violate the civil liberties of visitors and immigrants, but also negatively affect U.S. citizens, Ruiz wrote.

“We hope the department withdraws its proposal and preserves the free speech and privacy of millions of visa applicants and their families, friends, and co-workers, including those in the U.S,” he wrote.

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