USA First Look

Visa applicants seeking entry to US may have to give up passwords, says DHS chief

Previous proposals involving the inclusion of social media profiles in background checks have met with swift criticism from civil-liberty groups. This time is no different.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly listens to a question while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, before the House Homeland Security Committee.
Andrew Harnik/AP | Caption

The Trump administration has vowed to introduce “extreme vetting” of individuals coming from certain Muslim-majority countries. According to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, that could include demanding their social media passwords.

On Tuesday, Mr. Kelly appeared before the US House’s Homeland Security Committee, fielding questions from lawmakers about the new administration’s immigration policies, including its plans to aggressively vet arrivals from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen.

"We want to get on their social media, with passwords. What do you do, what do you say?" ,” Kelly said, as reported by NBC. "If they don't want to cooperate then you don't come in." Kelly stressed that this was one of just several ideas under consideration and mentioned access to financial records as another possible condition for entry.

But in a sign of social media’s far-reaching importance, his suggestion that US immigration officials should examine visitors’ Facebook and Twitter accounts sparked concern around the world.

“Today they are asking for our personal social media passwords, tomorrow our house keys perhaps?” wrote a commenter on the Times of India’s website. “Why go to a country where we will be treated as second class individuals?”

In the past, concerns about civil liberties have derailed similar proposals.

The idea of using social media to screen visitors has been around since at least 2011, when a Department of Homeland Security policy memo proposed that US Citizenship and Immigration Services “authorize certain agency personnel to access social networking sites for verification purposes.” The policy was never implemented, according to NBC.

In 2016, Customs and Border Protection proposed adding a line to the forms that foreigners without a visa fill out upon entering the United States. The line would have given visitors the option of sharing their “social media identifiers,” such as Twitter handles, but not their passwords.

That proposal drew swift condemnation from 33 civil-liberty groups, who in a joint letter described the move as “an intelligence surveillance program clothed as a customs administration mechanism.” Several months later, that line has not been added to either the I-94 or the I-94W, the two forms in question.

For now, at least, Kelly’s suggestion that Homeland Security will ask travelers for their passwords remains just that – a suggestion. But it will likely face even stronger pushback if the federal government tries to make it a reality.

A taste of this opposition came last month. Amid the chaotic implementation of President Trump’s executive order on immigration, some customs officials may have taken it upon themselves to examine new arrivals’ social media accounts.

Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, emphasized this as one of his main grievances with the ban.

I want to repeat: Green card holders were handcuffed, their social media was reviewed, and they were asked their views on Trump,” the activist tweeted in January.