Tech advocacy and civil liberty groups have opposed a proposal by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to include social media while reviewing visa-waiver applicants.

The proposal, to be implemented through U.S. Customs and Border Protection, would ask visa-waiver applicants to disclose information about their online presence in their visa-waiver arrival/departure records (Form I-94W) and their online application for an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).

According to the coalition, this program “would invade individual privacy and imperil freedom of expression while being ineffective and prohibitively expensive to implement and maintain.”

The proposed inquiry into visa-waiver applicants’ “online presence” would solicit travelers’ usernames or other “social media identifiers” associated with a wide range of Internet-based “provider[s]/platform[s].”

These terms are not clearly defined in the notice, but the proposal would appear to solicit applicants’ account names on certain popular social media platforms, and to volunteer any additional account names and platforms they may use.

This inquiry goes far beyond the customary visa-waiver application questions regarding a person’s name, address, criminal background, health status, and duration of stay, the groups argue, calling the program “highly invasive.”

The groups also argued that the analysis of all visa-waiver applicants’ social media “activity and connections” would be a difficult and prohibitively expensive intelligence activity—costs that are not reflected in the proposal.

According to the groups:

“It is not clear how applicants’ identifiers would be used by CBP officers to determine their eligibility for a visa waiver, but it is clear that an open-ended inquiry into “online presence” would give DHS a window into applicants’ private lives. Individuals’ “online presence” could include their reading lists, political affinities, professional activities, and private diversions. 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. Further, the meaning of content and connections on social media is idiosyncratic and context-dependent, but as a practical matter, applicants would have little or no opportunity to explain information associated with their online profiles or challenge inappropriate waiver denials.”

“Significant” Expansion of Intelligence Activity

The groups accused the DHS of cloaking an intelligence surveillance program under the guise of collecting online identity information.

Fears of Profiling

According to the coalition, the risk of discrimination based on analysis of social media content and connections is great and will fall hardest on Arab and Muslim communities, whose usernames, posts, contacts, and social networks will be exposed to intense scrutiny.

They also said online identifier collection would be “ineffective” for screening visa-waiver applicants. “While we understand the security concerns that motivate this proposal, we believe it would irresponsibly shift government resources to a costly and ineffective program while invading the privacy of not just visa-waiver applicants, but also their contacts in the U.S.,” added the coalition.