Social media vetting for US visas go live

Selected travelers will have to provide usernames, detailed travel histories and more

Through the end of November, individuals seeking a visa to travel to the US may be asked to provide usernames for social media accounts going back five years, subject to the discretion of consular officials.

Following a two-week period for public comment in early May, US Department of State (DoS) has adopted a supplemental questionnaire, Form DS-5535, to evaluate visa applicants who have been flagged for further review.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approved the questionnaire on May 23, according to Reuters. It will be in effect for 180 days, and possibly longer if renewed through subsequent law or policy.

The expanded review of would-be travelers represents an implementation of President Trump's March 6, 2017 directive calling for more rigorous evaluation of those seeking entry into the US.

The questionnaire, according to the DoS, will be presented to 0.5 per cent of US visa applicants worldwide – roughly 65,000 people annually who fit an undisclosed threat profile – for the purpose of obtaining additional information.

Critics of the plan suggest this is a veiled attempt to implement the Trump administration's court-blocked ban on travelers from six countries – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – with predominantly Muslim citizens.

"Tellingly, in fiscal year 2015, approximately 65,000 non-immigrant visas were issued to citizens from these six countries," wrote attorney Harsha Panduranga, a fellow at The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, in comments submitted to the DoS on behalf of 35 advocacy groups.

"In other words, it appears that the administration – stymied in its efforts to directly ban travel from these countries on constitutional grounds – may have decided to implement the same policy through its vetting procedures."

Form DS-5535 asks for the following details, some of which visa applicants may have already provided on other forms, though for shorter periods of time:

  • Travel history during the past fifteen years, including source of funding for travel.
  • Address history during the past fifteen years.
  • Employment history during the past fifteen years.
  • All passport numbers and country of issuance held by the applicant.
  • Names and dates of birth for all siblings.
  • Name and dates of birth for all children.
  • Names and dates of birth for all current and former spouses, or civil or domestic partners.
  • Social media platforms and identifiers, also known as handles, used during the past five years.
  • Phone numbers and email addresses used during the past five years.

A copy of Form DS-5535 made available through the website of the US Embassy and Consulate in Turkey indicates that it expires on November 30, 2017, and takes approximately an hour to complete.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association has questioned how the DoS calculated this figure. "Compiling the requested information, particularly for those who do not keep meticulous records, could take several hours at a minimum, and possibly days," the group said in a letter [PDF] two weeks ago.

The AILA expressed satisfaction that the US government was not seeking social media account passwords, but nonetheless criticized the government's approach.

"A review of social media profiles will, by necessity, not be limited to the applicant, and scrutiny would likely extend to US friends, relatives, and business associates, and chill constitutionally protected speech," the AILA said.

"Moreover, the meaning of content and connections on social media is idiosyncratic and context-dependent. Innocent communications could easily be misconstrued as nefarious and result in unwarranted denials with associated personal and business consequences."

Travel industry groups, concerned about policies that might deter tourism, questioned the value of asking for social media usernames, since would-be terrorists would simply lie.

The OMB and the DoS did not immediately respond to requests for comment. ®

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