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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 would 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, but as of October 2023, the Department of Homeland Security continues to collect this information. The timeline below shows the progression of these initiatives and responses from civil society.

Last Updated: December 21, 2023
Published: June 25, 2019


  • 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.



  • According to the IG report, 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 VWP and ESTA information collection published on June 23.
    • On October 3, the Brennan Center and a coalition of civil liberties organizations submit an additional set of comments to DHS in opposition to the proposal.



  • December 19 – DHS receives approval to implement collection of social media information from VWP travelers, proposed in June 2016, through the changes to the Arrival and Departure Record (Forms I-94 and I-94W) and ESTA.



  • 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.” Order does not specifically reference social media but is subsequently used as a basis for social media collection programs.



  • 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.
  • February 27 – After conducting an inspection to review DHS’s social media pilot programs, the OIG releases a report entitled DHS’ Pilots for Social Media Screening Need Increased Rigor to Ensure Scalability and Long-Term Success. In addition to revealing information about the pilot programs, the report concludes that DHS may not be “measuring and evaluating the pilots’ results to determine how well they are performing.”


MAY 2017

  • May 4 – The Department of State issues an emergency notice to increase screening of, and information collection from, a subset of applicants for immigrant and nonimmigrant visas, including requesting social media identifiers for the five-year period prior to the visa application.
    • 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.
  • May 23  The Department of State’s Emergency Notice is approved, authorizing collection of social media handles for 180 days.
    • February 8, 2021 – The Department of State releases a revision of the approved proposal, extending the timeframe to 36 months from the approval date.


JUNE 2017

  • June 12 – ICE issues a special notice announcing two “industry days” for vendors interested in the Extreme Vetting Initiative contract; industry days are held on July 18 and 19.





  • September 18 – DHS issues a notice expanding the categories of information stored in individuals’ official immigration records, known as Alien Files or A-files, to include “social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results.” Notice states it will become effective in full on Oct. 18, 2017, and invites comments until that date.
    • 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’ plan to retain social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results in immigrants’ A-files.
  • September 21 – 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 18 – Storage of social media data in A-files goes into effect.
  • October 24 –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 concludes 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 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 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 includes Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korean, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.


MARCH 2018

  • March 30 – The State Department issues a request for comments regarding its proposal to collect biographical information from individuals seeking nonimmigrant visas. Collected information would include, among other things, social media identifiers used by the applicants during the five years preceding the date of application.


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 – The Brennan Center sends a letter to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) urging the rejection of the State Department’s March 2018 proposal to ask all visa applicants for social media and other information.



  • 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 March 2018 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.


 AUGUST 2019

  • August 30 – 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 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 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.



  • February 20 – DHS issues a new proposal to collect social media information, based on the September 4, 2019, proposal to collect social media identifiers that visa seekers used in the prior five years.



  • 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 18 – DHS issues a notice and request for comments on a proposal to require people applying for visa-free travel to the U.S. through ESTA to disclose­ their social media iden­ti­fiers. The disclosure­ is optional for applicants.



  • February 23 – DHS reopens the comment period on its proposal for mandatory disclosure of social media identifiers for another 30 days. 
  • February 24 – DHS issues a revision of an approved collection from November 18, 2021, requiring visa-free travel applicants to disclose their social media identifiers through the ESTA.


MARCH 2022

  • March 25 – The Brennan Center and EPIC submit 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.


APRIL 2022

  • April 1 – DHS publishes an interim final rule for implementation of ESTA requirements for noncitizens intending to enter the United States under VWP at land ports of entry, including the disclosure of social media identifiers. Air and seaports of entry were already implemented. Comments are solicited until May 2, and the rule becomes effective on that date.



  • October 12 – DHS issues a revision of an approved collection from February 24, 2022, requiring visa-free travel applicants to disclose their social media identifiers through ESTA.