In a move designed to spot potential terror threats, the US government quietly began requesting select foreign visitors to provide their Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts upon arriving in the country, according to a media report.
Since Tuesday, foreign travelers arriving in the United States on the visa waiver programme have been presented with an “optional” request to “enter information associated with your online presence”, a government official confirmed on Thursday.
The prompt includes a drop-down menu that lists platforms including Facebook, Google Plus, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube, as well as a space for users to input their account names on those sites, Politico reported.
The new policy comes as Washington tries to improve its ability to spot and deny entry to individuals who have ties to terrorist groups like the Islamic State. But the government has faced a barrage of criticism since it first floated the idea last summer.
The Internet Association, which represents companies including Facebook, Google and Twitter, at the time joined with consumer advocates to argue the draft policy threatened free expression and posed new privacy and security risks to foreigners.
Now that it is final, those opponents are furious the Obama administration ignored their concerns.
“There are very few rules about how that information is being collected, maintained [and] disseminated to other agencies, and there are no guidelines about limiting the government’s use of that information,” said Michael W Macleod-Ball, chief of staff for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office.
A spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection, who said the government approved the change on December 19, said the new policy is meant to “identify potential threats”.
Previously, the agency had said it wouldn’t prohibit entry to foreigners who didn’t provide their social media account information.
The question itself is included in what’s known as the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation, a process that certain foreign travelers must complete to come to the US.
ESTA and a related paper form specifically apply to those arriving here through the visa-waiver program, which allows citizens of 38 countries to travel and stay in the United States for up to 90 days without a visa.
After the policy changed, Nathan White, the senior legislative manager of Access Now, again blasted it as a threat to human rights.
“The choice to hand over this information is technically voluntary,” he said. “But the process to enter the US is confusing, and it’s likely that most visitors will fill out the card completely rather than risk additional questions from intimidating, uniformed officers -- the same officers who will decide which of your jokes are funny and which ones make you a security risk”.