Advocacy Groups Argue DHS’ Social Media Proposal Is ‘Ineffective,’ Invasive

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A coalition of 28 civil rights and technology advocacy groups wrote a letter Monday to the Department of Homeland Security opposing the agency’s proposal that would give visa-waiver applicants the option to submit information on their social media profiles when filling out forms to come to the U.S.

“This program would invade individual privacy and imperil freedom of expression while being ineffective and prohibitively expensive to implement and maintain,” the groups wrote in the letter. The Center for Democracy and Technology, the Open Technology Institute and the Electronic Frontier Foundation were among the signatures.

The groups argue that the proposal would expand U.S. government surveillance activities “with consequences for innocent individuals swept up” in spying programs which track law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ suspects.

The proposal would add a prompt for applicants to provide information on their “online presence,” a request that although optional, would be “highly invasive,” according to the groups.

“It is clear that an open-ended inquiry into ‘online presence’ would give DHS a window into applicants’ private lives,” the groups argued, stating that a person’s online presence could comprise of their reading preferences, political affinities and professional and private activities. “Scrutiny of their sensitive or controversial online profiles would lead many visa-waiver applicants to self-censor or delete their accounts, with consequences for personal, business, and travel-related activity,” they added.

The groups pushed back on the proposed method of vetting due to fear that discrimination “will fall hardest on Arab and Muslim communities, whose usernames, posts, contacts, and social networks will be exposed to intense scrutiny.”

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the National Immigrant Justice Center and the American Civil Liberties Union were among the signatories of the letter.

DHS published the proposal in the Federal Register on June 23. The agency said compiling 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.”

The groups pushed back on that point, arguing that “individuals who pose a threat to the United States are highly unlikely to volunteer online identifiers tied to information that would raise questions about their admissibility to the United States.” They also called DHS’ proposal “prohibitively expensive.”

The Federal Register posting says the changes will affect one form (the I-94W Nonimmigrant Visa Waiver for arrivals and departures) and the online portal, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization. The estimated cost for the I-94W form is roughly $5.6 million, while the estimated cost to the public for the changes to ESTA would be about $265 million.

The posting estimates that it would take an average 16 minutes per response for the I-94W form (251,325 annual hours in total) and 23 minutes per response on ESTA (8,812,830 hours per year in total).

The deadline for public comments is Monday. The CDT sent comments opposing the proposal today saying the group is “deeply concerned that this proposal would invade the privacy and chill the freedom of expression of visitors to the United States and United States citizens.”

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