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Timeline of Social Media Monitoring for Vetting by the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department

In late 2014, the U.S. government began ramping up the use of social media for immigration vetting. What began as a small cadre of officers manually checking certain applicants’ social media accounts has since expanded dramatically: As of June 2019, the State Department will require the roughly 15 million foreigners who apply for U.S. visas each year to disclose all social media handles and usernames. In January 2021, President Biden ordered a review of the use of social media identifiers for screening and vetting purposes. The timeline below shows the progression of these initiatives and responses from civil society.

Last Updated: May 21, 2021
Published: June 25, 2019

DECEM­BER 2015

  • DHS begins both manual and auto­matic screen­ing of the social media accounts of a limited number of indi­vidu­als apply­ing to travel to the United States, through vari­ous non-public pilot programs. Accord­ing to a report by the DHS Inspector General, the object­ive of the program was to “exam­ine the feas­ib­il­ity of using social media screen­ing with an [unnamed] auto­mated search tool.”

APRIL 2016

  • Accord­ing to the IG report, U.S. Customs and Immig­ra­tion Services (USCIS) tests another unnamed auto­mated tool in a differ­ent pilot. Its purpose was to expand screen­ing to addi­tional applic­ants, includ­ing refugees, using a tool developed through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

JUNE 2016

  • June 23 – DHS issues a proposal to collect social media inform­a­tion from Visa Waiver Program (VWP) trav­el­ers through the creation of an optional data field on the Arrival and Depar­ture Record (Forms I-94 and I-94W) and Elec­tronic System for Travel Author­iz­a­tion (ESTA).
    • On August 22, the Bren­nan Center submits comments to DHS, oppos­ing the proposal.

AUGUST 2016

  • ICE begins another pilot program to screen the social media activ­ity of a category of nonim­mig­rant visa applic­ants. This pilot used an auto­mated web search tool that “special­izes in social media data exploit­a­tion by analyz­ing social media data and funnel­ing it into action­able inform­a­tion.”
  • August 31- DHS issues a notice allow­ing an addi­tional 30 days for the post­ing of public comments regard­ing the proposed inform­a­tion collec­tion previ­ously published on June 23.
    • On Octo­ber 3, the Bren­nan Center and a coali­tion of civil liber­ties organ­iz­a­tions submit comments to DHS in oppos­i­tion to the proposal. 

DECEM­BER 2016

  • Decem­ber 19 – DHS receives approval to imple­ment collec­tion of social media inform­a­tion from Visa Waiver Program (VWP) trav­el­ers through the changes to the Arrival and Depar­ture Record (Forms I-94 and I-94W) and Elec­tronic System for Travel Author­iz­a­tion (ESTA).

JANU­ARY 2017

  • Janu­ary 27 - The Trump admin­is­tra­tion issues Exec­ut­ive Order 13769: Protect­ing the Nation from Foreign Terror­ist Entry into the United States – other­wise known as the Muslim ban. The order calls for the imple­ment­a­tion of a process to eval­u­ate, for visa applic­ants, “the applic­ant’s like­li­hood of becom­ing a posit­ively contrib­ut­ing member of soci­ety and the applic­ant’s abil­ity to make contri­bu­tions to the national interest.”   

FEBRU­ARY 2017

  • Febru­ary 7 – DHS Secret­ary John Kelly suggests in a state­ment at the House Home­land Secur­ity Commit­tee hear­ing that DHS could require non-citizens to provide the pass­words to their social media accounts as a condi­tion of enter­ing the coun­try.
    • Febru­ary 21 – A coali­tion releases a state­ment condemning the Febru­ary 7 state­ments made by Secret­ary Kelly.
    • March 10 - A coali­tion sends a compre­hens­ive letter directly to Secret­ary Kelly condemning the proposal.

MAY 2017 

  • May 4 - The Depart­ment of State issues an emer­gency notice of new propos­als to increase screen­ing and inform­a­tion collec­tion of certain applic­ants, includ­ing request­ing their social media handles.
    • On May 18, the Bren­nan Center, along with 34 other civil and human rights organ­iz­a­tions, submits comments to the State Depart­ment express­ing oppos­i­tion. The letter argues that the proposal is excess­ively burden­some and vague, is apt to chill speech, is discrim­in­at­ory against Muslims, and has no secur­ity bene­fit.

JUNE 2017

  • June 29 – The House passes Kate’s Law and the No Sanc­tu­ary for Crim­in­als Act, both of which aimed to penal­ize illegal immig­rants who commit crimes, as well as local juris­dic­tions that refuse to work with federal author­it­ies to deport them.
  • June 12 – ICE issues a special notice announ­cing two “industry days” for vendors inter­ested in the Extreme Vetting Initi­at­ive contract.

JULY 2017

  • July 18 & 19 – ICE holds two “industry days” for vendors inter­ested in the Extreme Vetting Initi­at­ive contract.

AUGUST 2017

  • Early August – Build­ing Amer­ica’s Trust Act is intro­duced in the Senate. The bill sought to encour­age DHS to review social media accounts of visa applic­ants from citizens of “high-risk coun­tries” desig­nated at the discre­tion of the secret­ary.

SEPTEM­BER 2017

  • Septem­ber 18 – DHS issues a notice regard­ing its stor­age of social media inform­a­tion on immig­rants, includ­ing lawful perman­ent resid­ents and natur­al­ized U.S. citizens, in Alien Files (A-files).
    • On Octo­ber 18, a coali­tion submits comments express­ing oppos­i­tion to DHS social media reten­tion.
    • On Novem­ber 20, six U.S. senat­ors send a letter to the Acting Secret­ary of DHS to express concern and seek clari­fic­a­tion regard­ing DHS’s plan to retain social media handles, aliases, asso­ci­ated iden­ti­fi­able inform­a­tion, and search results in an immig­rants’ A-File. 
  • Septem­ber 21 – DHS/Customs and Border Protec­tion (CBP) issues a notice to propose the estab­lish­ment of a new system of intel­li­gence records, includ­ing data from social media.
    • On Octo­ber 23, the Elec­tronic Privacy Inform­a­tion Center (EPIC) submits comments object­ing to signi­fic­ant aspects of the notice.

OCTO­BER 2017

  • Octo­ber 24 – The Trump admin­is­tra­tion announces an expan­sion of its “enhanced review” process, includ­ing social media checks, for refugees from 11 coun­tries iden­ti­fied as posing a “higher risk” to the U.S. based on their desig­na­tion on the Secur­ity Advis­ory Opin­ion (SAO) list.
  • Octo­ber 27 - DHS’s Privacy Office issues a Privacy Compli­ance Review of CBP’s use of social media for ESTA vetting. It concluded that the use of social media iden­ti­fi­ers was compli­ant with the require­ments outlined in its privacy impact assess­ment but could not verify whether officers were collect­ing only the minimum amount of personal inform­a­tion neces­sary for the perform­ance of their duties.

NOVEM­BER 2017

  • Novem­ber 16 – The Bren­nan Center and a coali­tion of 55 civil soci­ety organ­iz­a­tions send a letter to DHS urging the Depart­ment to aban­don its Extreme Vetting Initi­at­ive, call­ing the initi­at­ive “tailor-made for discrim­in­a­tion” and arguing that it will “undoubtedly chill free expres­sion” by driv­ing trav­el­ers and their Amer­ican friends and family to censor them­selves online.
  • Novem­ber 16 – A coali­tion of 54 of the nation’s lead­ing experts in machine learn­ing and auto­mated decision-making send a letter to DHS oppos­ing ICE’s Extreme Vetting Initi­at­ive, explain­ing that “no compu­ta­tional meth­ods can provide reli­able or object­ive assess­ments of the traits that ICE seeks to meas­ure.”

JANU­ARY 2018

  • Janu­ary 2 – The Daily Beast publishes a series of docu­ments obtained through a FOIA request, bring­ing to light more inform­a­tion about USCIS’s social media pilot programs. Though quite redac­ted, the docu­ments show that the programs focused mainly on Muslims and were largely inef­fect­ive in identi­fy­ing national secur­ity concerns.
  • Janu­ary 29 - DHS imple­ments “enhanced vetting meas­ures,” includ­ing added social media vetting, to vet refugees from 11 so-called “high-risk” coun­tries. The coun­tries are not publicly iden­ti­fied, but report­ing indic­ates that the list included Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korean, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

MARCH 2018

  • March 30 – The State Depart­ment issues notices of propos­als to collect a range of inform­a­tion from applic­ants for both immig­rant and non-immig­rant visas. The proposal seeks to ask all visa applic­ants – an estim­ated 14.7 million people per year – to provide social media iden­ti­fi­ers, tele­phone numbers, and email addresses used in the past five years, among other inform­a­tion.

MAY 2018

  • Mid-May - ICE drops the machine learn­ing require­ment of the Extreme Vetting Initi­at­ive (rebranded as the “Visa Life­cycle Vetting Initi­at­ive”), opting instead for a labor-based contract under which it will hire contract­ors to review indi­vidu­als’ social media accounts. The contract for ICE’s human-centered monit­or­ing was awar­ded to SRA Inter­na­tional (now CSRA Inc., owned by General Dynam­ics), but chal­lenged by two other big data analyt­ics compan­ies. Both protests were even­tu­ally denied by the U.S. Govern­ment Account­ab­il­ity Office and fund­ing was offi­cially awar­ded to SRA in May 2019.
  • May 30 - The Bren­nan Center and 56 other organ­iz­a­tions submit comments urging the State Depart­ment to with­draw its March 2018 proposal to ask all visa applic­ants for social media iden­ti­fi­ers and other inform­a­tion.
    • Septem­ber 27, 2018 – The Bren­nan Center sends a letter to the Office of Inform­a­tion and Regu­lat­ory Affairs (OIRA) urging the rejec­tion of the State Depart­ment’s proposal to ask all visa applic­ants for social media and other inform­a­tion.

OCTO­BER 2018

  • Late Octo­ber - The Bren­nan Center receives a produc­tion of docu­ments from a Septem­ber 2017 FOIA request to ICE. The docu­ments, though heav­ily redac­ted, include commu­nic­a­tions regard­ing ICE’s social media pilot programs refer­enced in the Septem­ber 2017 OIG report, and inform­a­tion about the agency’s work with data mining firm Giant Oak.

APRIL 2019

  • April 11 – The State Depart­ment’s proposal to collect social media iden­ti­fi­ers from all visa applic­ants is approved by the Office of Manage­ment and Budget.

MAY 2019

  • May 17  The Acting Secret­ary of Home­land Secur­ity, Kevin K. McAleenan, issues a memor­andum outlining restric­tions on DHS collec­tion of inform­a­tion relat­ing to First Amend­ment protec­ted activ­it­ies, specific­ally with respect to U.S. citizens and green card hold­ers. The memor­andum provides that DHS person­nel may collect inform­a­tion on First Amend­ment protec­ted activ­ity in situ­ations includ­ing “when that activ­ity is relev­ant to the grant­ing or denial of a pending applic­a­tion.” 
  • May 31 – The State Depart­ment begins collect­ing social media iden­ti­fi­ers from nearly all foreign­ers apply­ing for visas to travel to the U.S. – some 15 million trav­el­ers per year.

JULY 2019

  • July 26 – DHS’s Privacy Office issues a Privacy Impact Assess­ment address­ing the process by which USCIS offi­cials access social media inform­a­tion when conduct­ing certain back­ground, iden­tity, and secur­ity checks. The assess­ment expands USCIS author­ity to use ficti­tious social media accounts that conceal a user’s govern­ment affil­i­ation in order to review the social media activ­ity of applic­ants for asylum and immig­ra­tion bene­fits, though employ­ees are still prohib­ited from friend­ing, follow­ing, or other­wise inter­act­ing with applic­ants.

SEPTEM­BER 2019

  • Septem­ber 4 - DHS issues a proposal to collect social media inform­a­tion from applic­ants for immig­ra­tion bene­fits, includ­ing adjust­ment of status, natur­al­iz­a­tion, and asylum status, as well as from Visa Waiver Program applic­ants. The proposal, which repres­ents a signi­fic­ant expan­sion of the program begun by DHS in 2016, seeks to ask all applic­ants – an estim­ated 33 million people per year – to provide social media iden­ti­fi­ers used in the past five years.
    • Novem­ber 4 – The Bren­nan Center and a coali­tion of 41 civil, human and immig­rant rights organ­iz­a­tions submit comments to DHS in oppos­i­tion to the proposal. 

NOVEM­BER 2019

  • Novem­ber 19 – The Bren­nan Center and a coali­tion of 39 civil soci­ety organ­iz­a­tions send a letter to DHS express­ing concerns about the Depart­ment’s social media screen­ing of trav­el­ers at ports of entry and request­ing that DHS clarify and release mater­i­als concern­ing its policies on assess­ing trav­el­ers’ social media activ­ity.

DECEM­BER 2019

  • Decem­ber 5 – The Bren­nan Center, the Knight First Amend­ment Insti­tute, and the law firm Simpson Thacher file a lawsuit chal­len­ging the State Depart­ment’s drag­net collec­tion of social media handles from U.S. visa applic­ants and DHS’s long-term reten­tion and dissem­in­a­tion of that inform­a­tion. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two U.S. based organ­iz­a­tions that collab­or­ate with film­makers around the world, Doc Soci­ety and the Inter­na­tional Docu­ment­ary Asso­ci­ation, and alleges that the govern­ment’s policies viol­ate the First Amend­ment and the Admin­is­trat­ive Proced­ure Act. 

JANU­ARY 2021

  • Janu­ary 20 - As part of an exec­ut­ive order ending the Muslim and African ban, Pres­id­ent Biden directs the State Depart­ment, DHS, and Director of National Intel­li­gence to conduct a review of the use of social media iden­ti­fi­ers for screen­ing and vetting purposes. A report contain­ing the review’s find­ings is to be delivered to the pres­id­ent on May 20, 2021.

APRIL 2021

  • April 2 - The Office of Inform­a­tion and Regu­lat­ory Affairs (OIRA), the White House office that reviews federal regu­la­tions, rejects DHS’s Septem­ber 2019 proposal to collect social media iden­ti­fi­ers on travel and immig­ra­tion forms, conclud­ing that DHS did not “adequately [demon­strate] the prac­tical util­ity of collect­ing this inform­a­tion” and noting that the Muslim ban, which ordered the proposal, had been repealed.

NOVEM­BER 2021

  • Novem­ber 18 - DHS published a proposal with a 60-day request for comments 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 disclos­ure is currently optional for applic­ants.

FEBRU­ARY 2022

  • Febru­ary 23 - DHS reopened the comment period on its proposal for mandat­ory disclos­ure of social media iden­ti­fi­ers for another 30 days. 

MARCH 2022

  • March 25 - The Bren­nan Center and the Elec­tronic Privacy Inform­a­tion Center (EPIC) submit­ted a comment oppos­ing DHS’s request to collect the social media iden­ti­fi­ers of millions of people apply­ing for visa-free travel to the U.S. Because the proposal does not meet OIRA’s require­ment that DHS demon­strate that the util­ity of the program outweighs the costs, the comment urges the depart­­ment to with­draw the proposal or for OIRA to disap­­prove the proposal consist­ent with their prior judg­­ment.