On November 18, 2021, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it intended to require people applying for visa-free travel to the U.S. through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) to disclose their social media identifiers. The request would make the disclosure – which is currently optional – mandatory for roughly 15 million applicants a year. On March 25, Brennan Center and EPIC submitted a comment opposing the request.
As the comment points out, less than a year ago, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) disapproved an identical proposal from the department as part of a broader request to collect social media identifiers on travel and immigration forms (which the Brennan Center and other organizations also opposed). Applying legal requirements, OMB concluded that DHS had not shown the “practical utility” of collecting social media handles, and that if they were to submit a similar request in the future, that DHS would need to demonstrate that the collection’s utility would outweigh its “monetary and social costs.” DHS provides no evidence of such utility here, writing only that: “Making social media a mandatory field in the ESTA application will enhance our vetting processes and assist in confirming applicants’ identities,” despite the department’s own tests repeatedly failing to show that social media screening is a useful tool for vetting travelers and immigrants. DHS also fails to account for the serious costs of the collection, which burdens free expression and association, privacy, and risks amplifying disparate impacts.
DHS’s information request now sits before the OMB for review, and does not meet the legal standard for approval. The comment urges the department to withdraw the proposal or, if necessary, for OMB to disapprove the proposal consistent with their prior judgment.