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Homeland Security to collect social media usernames on immigration and visitor applications

The Department of Homeland Security plans to begin requesting social media information on applications for immigration benefits and foreign travel to the US, an expansion of data collection already taking place. By Geneva Sands, CNN

(CNN) -- The Department of Homeland Security plans to begin requesting social media information on applications for immigration benefits and foreign travel to the US, an expansion of data collection already taking place.

Some foreign travelers to the US, as well as applicants for immigration benefits, will be asked to list their social media accounts and usernames for the past five years, according to a notice in the Federal Register. The information will be used to determine whether an individual "poses a law enforcement or national security risk to the United States."

Social media platforms that DHS will ask about include Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Ask.fm, Weibo, Myspace, YouTube and Linkedin. The agency says it will not collect passwords and will review only publicly available information.

The change comes amid furor over a Harvard student, Ismail Ajjawi, who was at first denied entry into the US based on information discovered during a US Customs and Border Protection inspection.

According to The Harvard Crimson, Ajjawi alleged he was told that there were "political points of view that oppose the US" expressed by people he follows on social media. After he was questioned, the Crimson reported, his visa was revoked and he was sent back to Lebanon. He has since been allowed to enter the US and attend school.

The State Department is already requesting social media information from most US visa applicants.

In June, the State Department said the forms for both immigrant and non-immigrant visa applicants had been updated "to request additional information, including social media identifiers."

The DHS social media collection stems a 2017 executive order which requires the implementation of vetting standards and collection of information related to entry in to the US and immigration benefits.

The updated data collection will affect nine US Citizenship and Immigration Services programs for immigration benefits, such as applications for naturalization and asylum, as well as three Customs and Border Protection forms -- for visa waivers, visa updates and the Electronic System for Travel Authorization document.

This is the first time Citizenship and Immigration Services would require social media accounts and handles on these applications, according to a DHS official. It's unclear whether Customs and Border Protection was collecting this data in the past.

The proposed changes are expected to begin in 2020, the official added.

Last week, Citizenship and Immigration Services, which manages legal immigration benefits, updated its privacy policy, which said in part that it would allow the agency to use fake social media accounts or identities to identify threats and detect fraud in the immigration system.

These two developments are "a reflection of the extent to which US government agencies have really expanded use of social media surveillance," said Hugh Handeyside, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project.

"There are some serious problems. The potential to misinterpret online speech is through the roof," said Handeyside.

He also told CNN it will "inevitably hamper freedom of speech," because people self-censor when they know the government is watching, adding that there is "no way DHS can do this without also sweeping up the online speech of US citizens."

Earlier this year, the ACLU brought a lawsuit in federal court seeking records related to social media surveillance by the government -- the policies that govern the process and the tools used to do it.

Obama administration Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson previously delegated authority to Citizenship and Immigration Services to conduct law enforcement activities, including the use of fake accounts to access public social media information, provided that they be conducted by "properly trained and authorized officers," and that they meet privacy and civil rights obligations.

The immigration agency is allowed to use the fake identities only to review publicly available social media accounts and must have supervisory approval.

The department currently uses social media information in its vetting of applicants, but says it is labor-intensive to connect social media accounts to applicants. Collecting usernames, DHS says, will reduce the time needed to validate social media accounts.

Privacy advocates have argued that social media collection has limited value and can create a situation ripe for discrimination.

"There's no evidence at all that social media monitoring is useful in identifying security threats," said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice Liberty and National Security Program.

Patel also pointed out that "social media is inherently very difficult to interpret," adding that it's highly context-dependent and often includes slangs, cultural differences and languages other than English.

According to a Brennan Center report, "Social Media Monitoring," a 2016 brief prepared by DHS for the incoming administration found that "the information in the accounts did not yield clear, articulable links to national security concerns, even for those applicants who were found to pose a potential national security threat based on other security screening results."

When asked about the 2016 brief, the DHS official told CNN that "the proposed collection of social media identifiers will make the review of publicly available social media information more efficient."

Customs and Border Protection retains information on two of its applications, which is will require social media information, for three years in an active database and 12 years in an archived database, according to the DHS official.

Information in Customs and Border Protection's Electronic Visa Update System, an automated system to determine eligibility to travel to the US on a 10-year visitor visa, will be archived for 12 years.

Any retained data linked to law enforcement records will remain "accessible for the life of the law enforcement activities," said the official.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2018 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

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