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Uncle Sam backs down on slurping passwords from US visa hopefuls

State Dept asks public for comment on proposals to probe immigrants' online profiles

The US State Department has asked the public to comment on changes to its immigrant vetting procedures – particularly the bit where it demands people's social media handles.

Asking non-citizens to disclose their online public profiles was put forward during the Obama administration. After the presidential election, new Homeland Security boss John Kelly ramped up the rhetoric by suggesting visa hopefuls hand over to US officials the passwords to their internet accounts – from Facebook and Twitter to webmail and online banking.

Now the administration appears to have backed down, based on an official Notice of Information Collection posted Thursday on the Federal Register.

The State Department intends to hold a public consultation on proposed changes to its processes, and has said it will ask for the following information from visa applicants:

  • Travel history during the past fifteen years, including source of funding for travel.
  • Address history during the past fifteen years.
  • Employment history during the past fifteen years.
  • All passport numbers and country of issuance held by the applicant.
  • Names and dates of birth for all siblings.
  • Name and dates of birth for all children.
  • Names and dates of birth for all current and former spouses, or civil or domestic partners.
  • Social media platforms and identifiers, also known as handles, used during the past five years.
  • Phone numbers and email addresses used during the past five years.

A lot of this information is already required from visa applicants, but the social media aspect is new. Apparently, the government expects to rifle through the public profiles of about 65,000 people a year – or about 0.5 per cent of applicants. We expect these people to be from corners of the globe that aren't trusted by the Trump administration – such as Iran and Somalia – or have names that rhyme with Mohammed. However, it appears passwords are to be a no-go area.

"Consular officers will not request user passwords and will not attempt to subvert any privacy controls the applicants may have implemented on social media platforms," the filing [PDF] states.

"Consular officers are directed not to engage or interact with individuals on or through social media; not to violate or attempt to violate individual privacy settings; and not to use social media or assess an individual's social media presence beyond established Department guidance."

The public comment period ends on May 18. You can email in your views, or even use a fax if you're feeling retro, but keep 'em clean please. ®

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