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Brennan Center and EPIC Urge DHS to Withdraw Proposal to Collect Social Media Handles of Visa Applicants

On March 25, 2022, the Brennan Center and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) submitted a comment to the Department of Homeland Security, opposing DHS’s re-introduction of a request to collect the social media identifiers of millions of people applying for visa-free travel to the U.S. without demonstrating the utility of the policy.

Last Updated: March 28, 2022
Published: March 28, 2022

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.


Comments Re Social Media Collec­tion on ESTA—OMB No. 1651–0111 by The Bren­nan Center for Justice on Scribd