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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.

Overview

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.