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Government: Social Media Surveillance

Federal agencies are expanding their collection of social media information on foreign and American travelers. We shine a light on the immense scope of this personal data collection and advocate for greater transparency and oversight.


The Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity (DHS) is increas­ingly incor­por­at­ing social media monit­or­ing into its immig­ra­tion, customs, and border enforce­ment activ­it­ies — despite scarce evid­ence that it’s effect­ive. There is, however, ample evid­ence that vetting what people say online has a chilling effect on speech and infringes on privacy. Such meas­ures are also likely to dispro­por­tion­ately affect Muslims and other minor­it­ies.

Social media inform­a­tion about millions of people, Amer­ic­ans and foreign­ers alike, in the hands of federal agen­cies is ripe for abuse and misuse. DHS has reportedly already used its social media monit­or­ing programs to surveil Black Lives Matter activ­ists, indi­vidu­als involved in anti-Trump protests in New York City, and lawyers and journ­al­ists at the south­ern border. Monit­or­ing online speech — like other forms of surveil­lance — will lead to self-censor­ship of those apply­ing for visas or immig­ra­tion bene­fits, as well as their family members and friends in the U.S. And while the govern­ment claims that social media checks are neces­sary to identify secur­ity threats, there is no evid­ence to suggest that these programs actu­ally help keep the coun­try safe.

The State Depart­ment, DHS’s close part­ner in visa vetting, now requires that the 15 million people who apply for visas annu­ally provide their social media handles. This require­ment is part of the govern­ment’s “extreme vetting” policy, an exten­sion of Pres­id­ent Trump’s Muslim Ban, and it is likely to facil­it­ate discrim­in­a­tion based on national origin, reli­gion, and ideo­logy. The Bren­nan Center leads a group of civil soci­ety organ­iz­a­tions urging the State Depart­ment to aban­don its collec­tion of social media iden­ti­fi­ers and high­light­ing the immense privacy and civil liber­ties prob­lems with such collec­tion.

In addi­tion to fight­ing the State Depart­ment’s collec­tion of social media handles, we advoc­ate for congres­sional over­sight over social media surveil­lance and vetting programs to ensure that they are effect­ive, nondis­crim­in­at­ory, and include robust privacy protec­tions.

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