Will US border officials demand social network handles from visitors?

Draft visa form spotted with mandatory box for profile links

Updated People visiting America may be pressured or told to reveal their social network profiles to border officials, judging by a draft visa form.

In June, the US government announced it was considering adding a box to the I-94W form that gives folks the option of declaring their social media handles when entering the country. Uncle Sam also asked the public for their opinion on the changes over a 60-day consultation period.

In August, a coalition of 28 privacy groups sent a joint letter to the US Department of Homeland Security decrying the move as unnecessary and invasive. More than 700 comments were also submitted by individuals, the vast majority critical of the plans.

Judging by a draft version [PDF] of the updated application forms – spotted by digital rights non-profit Access Now – these views may have counted for naught. On the I-94W is a non-optional box demanding the applicant's “social media identifiers” – such as their Twitter handles and Facebook profile URL.

A final version of the updated form has yet to be approved.

“This kind of broad-strokes data collection violates fundamental privacy rights and hinders freedom of expression — and there's no proof it would do anything to improve security,” Access Now said.

“To make matters worse, Customs and Border Protection is also pushing a separate proposal dramatically expanding its ability to store and share the social media data it would collect. Under the new system, travelers’ social media records could be shared with law enforcement and other government agencies both in bulk and on a case-by-case basis.”

US border staff already do some social media investigations, which have resulted in some tourists being held for questioning and then sent home. Irish national Leigh Van Bryan and his British partner were deported after tweeting that they were going to be "totally in LA p*ssing people off on Hollywood Blvd and diggin' Marilyn Monroe up!"

Homeland Security has argued that monitoring social networks will be a vital tool in The War Against Terror (TWAT), although it’s difficult to imagine a jihadi announcing his or her plans solely on Facebook or Twitter before traveling – usually there is other evidence and chatter. The DHS estimates the cost of such monitoring would be about $300m a year.

A spokesperson for the US Customs and Border Protection agency was not available for comment. ®

Updated to add

US border officials have stressed to The Register that the aforementioned form is an "outdated version of a draft to a possible update to the I-94W," and that no final decision has been made on any changes to the paperwork. We're told the question on social media will "be optional and DHS would only have access to information publicly available on those platforms, consistent with the privacy settings of the platforms."

Customs officers are also "committed to protecting the privacy and civil rights and civil liberties of all travelers."

"The reality is that today’s society is using social media as a primary means for communication. This includes terrorists, terrorist organizations, and criminals," said a spokesperson for the US Customs and Border Protection agency.

"Collecting social media identifiers will enhance the existing vetting process to better assess ESTA applications. It may help detect potential threats because experience has shown that criminals and terrorists, whether intentionally or not, have provided previously unavailable information via social media that identified their true intentions.

"Consistent with DHS’s mission to secure the Nation from threats and facilitate legitimate trade and travel, the collection of social media identifiers will not be used to prevent travel based on applicant’s political views, race, or religion. The religion, faith, race and/or ethnicity of a traveler is not a determining factor in determining admissibility and/or eligibility to travel under the Visa Waiver Program."

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