Any social media accounts to declare? US wants travelers to tell

The State Department seeks to expand its social media vetting beyond flagged visa applicants

The US Department of State wants to ask visa applicants to provide details on the social media accounts they've used in the past five years, as well as telephone numbers, email addresses, and international travel during this period.

The plan, if approved by the Office of Management and Budget, will expand the vetting regime applied to those flagged for extra immigration scrutiny – rolled out last year – to every immigrant visa applicant and to non-immigrant visa applicants such as business travelers and tourists.

The Department of State published its notice of request for public comment in the Federal Register on Friday. The comment process concludes on May 29, 2018.

The notice explains that the Department of State wants to expand the information it collects by adding questions to its Electronic Application for Immigrant Visa and Alien Registration (DS-260).

The online form will provide a list of social media platforms – presumably the major ones – and "requires the applicant to provide any identifiers used by applicants for those platforms during the five years preceding the date of application."

For social media platforms not on the list, visa applicants "will be given the option to provide information."

The Department of State says that the form "will be submitted electronically over an encrypted connection to the Department via the internet," as if to offer reassurance that it will be able to store the data securely.

It's perhaps worth noting that Russian hackers penetrated the Department of State's email system in 2014, and in 2016, the State Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) gave the agency dismal marks for both its physical and cybersecurity competency.

The Department of State estimates that its revised visa process will affect 710,000 immigrant visa applicants attempting to enter the US; its more limited review of travelers flagged for additional screening only affected an estimated 65,000 people.

But around 10 million non-immigrant visa applicants who seek to come to the US can also look forward to social media screening.

In a statement emailed to The Register, a State Department spokesperson said the proposed changes follow from President Trump's March 2017 Memorandum and Executive Order 13780 and reflect the need for screening standards to address emerging threats.

"Under this proposal, nearly all US visa applicants will be asked to provide additional information, including their social media identifiers, prior passport numbers, information about family members, and a longer history of past travel, employment, and contact information than is collected in current visa application forms," the spokesperson said.

The Department of State already collects limited contact information, travel history, family member information, and previous addresses from all visa applicants, the spokesperson said.

The handful of comments submitted so far decry the proposed changes.

I strongly disagree with these changes as they presume guilt of every individual applying for a visa," writes an individual posting under the name Malia Robinson. "I could not possibly remember all the information that is asked for, therefore setting the possibility for entrapment due to simple forgetfulness. This will deter foreign citizens from wanting to come to the US, which will have potentially profound impacts on economic sectors, research and industry, thus creating threats to the US that are likely to outweigh the speculative threat of 'terrorism.' This is regressive and xenophobic posturing that is akin to something we would see in authoritarian regimes. It is fundamentally un-American.

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