Visitors to the United States can now be asked their email addresses and the handles they use on social media. The new US government policy has privacy advocates up in arms, but the Trump administration says it could help weed out travelers with bad intent.
In dozens of countries around the world, visitors to the US must first apply for a travel visa, which is granted by the State Department. It involves a trip to the local US embassy or consulate, or one in a neighboring country, where a government official conducts an in-person interview with the prospective traveler.
According to the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, a supplemental questionnaire that asks visitors about their social media handles will be given to a “fraction of 1% of the 13 or so million people who apply for a visa.” The spokesperson told USA Today that it’s only intended for applicants from whom officials require more information.
The State Department noted that applicants are not asked for their passwords, and consular officers do not add them to their friends list. They will also be asked about their employment history, and members of their family.
Reuters reports that the State Department was granted the right to ask for these details under an emergency request on May 3, which was granted on May 23 by the Office of Budget and Management. Consular officials may have asked prospective travelers for their social media handles in the past, but the practice is now official following new restrictions and regulations by the Trump administration, some of which were overturned in court, including the so-called “Muslim ban” that was intended to prohibit travel from a list of countries first established by the Obama administration.
The digital civil rights organization Electronics Frontier Foundation has raised alarms about the new policy, citing the possibility that consular officials would make a rush to judgment.
“We see this as part of a larger pattern of the federal government scrutinizing the social media of presumably blameless foreigners,” said Adam Schwartz of EFF, who says that visitors to the US might have shared their opinions critical of the US in the past on social media. “They weren’t thinking about what might look suspicious to a consular official.”
The State Department says that they will follow the letter of the law on who it refuses or permits entry to the US. They can deny visas for cases of fraud, drug abuse, communicable disease, prior criminal records, links to terrorist groups, and previous immigration violations. The State Department spokesperson says they will not be denying anyone entry based on their personal beliefs.