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US Asks Foreign Visitors to Provide Social Media Account Info

(Jason Howie/Flickr Creative Commons)

Citing the 15-year-long global war against Islamist terrorism, the United States government has started asking some foreign visitors to provide information about their social media accounts.

McClatchy reports the new policy, which was originally proposed in June, went into effect on December 19 for visitors from the 38 visa waiver nations. These visitors apply through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which now asks them to:

Enter information associated with your online presence, including the types of online platforms, applications and websites that you use to collaborate, share information and interact with others as well as username(s) associated with those accounts.

Under the new policy, US Customs and Border Protection requests information about Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Google+ and LinkedIn accounts. The agency also informs travelers that providing the information is optional.

Some critics argue the move has more to do with expanding US global surveillance and state power than with fighting terrorism, while others say it could be used to unfairly target Muslims and Arabs. “The risk of discrimination based on analysis of social media content and connections is great and will fall hardest on Arab and Muslim communities, whose usernames, posts, contacts, and social networks will be exposed to intense scrutiny,” a letter from a coalition of 28 civil rights and technology groups warned.

Digital rights advocates also say the new policy will have a chilling effect on online speech.

“The request is so vague; it asks for information about social media and online presence, but there is no definition of what that means,” Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel for the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told AlterNet. “This gives enormous discretion to Customs and Border Protection officers who are looking at information and asking travelers for that information. Any traveler who is coming to the country and thinks he or she might be asked for it, even if it is not officially a requirement, might reasonably think, ‘I should be very careful about what I am posting online.’”

However, the Obama administration defended the new policy, claiming it could help identify terrorist threats. “Collecting social media data will enhance the existing investigative process and provide [the Department of Homeland Security] greater clarity and visibility to possible nefarious activity and connections by providing an additional tool set which analysts and investigators may use to better analyze and investigate the case,” it said when announcing the proposed changes in June.

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