Privacy advocates rail against US Homeland Security's Twitter, Facebook snooping

Coalition sends letter complaining about 'highly invasive' proposal

A proposal to ask people to provide details of their social media accounts before entering the United States has been criticized as "highly invasive" by privacy advocates.

A coalition of 28 groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), Consumer Federation of America, and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), has sent a joint letter on the last day of the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS's) public comment period slamming the proposal as an invasion of privacy, an attack on freedom of expression, and both ineffective and hugely expensive.

Under the proposal, new boxes would be added to the form that visitors to the United States have to fill out, asking people to supply "information associated with your online presence – Provider/Platform – Social media identifier." That is, your details on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat etc.

Providing the information would be optional – at least initially – and "used for vetting purposes, as well as applicant contact information." The DHS also claims it would "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."

Privacy groups are less taken with the idea, arguing that it would "give DHS a window into applicants' private lives," and claiming that it is mass surveillance by another name.

"The scale and scope of this program would lead to a significant expansion of intelligence activity," the letter argues. "DHS collection of online identity information is an intelligence surveillance program clothed as a customs administration mechanism."

As well as being highly invasive and an expansion of already significant surveillance, the proposal would create unnecessary problems for Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans and prove ineffective, the letter argues.

Cost: $300m and climbing

It also questions the cost of the scheme, which the DHS has estimated would be around $300m, noting that it does not include the cost of actually processing the information gathered, simply the cost of gathering it. When you account for the need to actually review what appears, the program would be "prohibitively expensive, with no conclusive benefits to the mission of DHS."

What the letter doesn't note – but which every visitor to the US will be wary of – is the extra time it will take on top of the already lengthy entry process to get into the country. The DHS estimates it would take an additional eight minutes for people at customs and an extra 16 minutes for people using the I‑94 website.

That means longer queues and longer wait times while border patrol agents dig through your posts about food, hair and headaches in the hope of finding something incriminating.

Plus of course, any actual jihadist trying to get into the United States is highly unlikely to give the details of a social media account in which they express support for violent actions against the very country they wish to enter.

But then the DHS is not renowned for nuance, most famously indicated by the entry question asking whether you were ever a member of the Nazi government or have ever participated in genocide. So far, the DHS has yet to confirm it has received a positive response in the decades in which the questions has been asked of millions of visitors.

There have been over 700 comments to the DHS' proposals. As you might expect, the vast majority have not been complimentary.

"Sounds like 1984 to me," said one succinct response. Another: "Unconstitutional, unjustified, waste of taxpayers' money." Another: "This is such a waste of money and would be completely ineffective."

Amid the hundreds of critical posts, however, we did find one fan. "I think it's a great idea," said one Michael Lederman, although he didn't go into any more detail beyond this broad approval. ®


Read this: The Register Guide to data security when visiting the US

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