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US could seek social media details for visa processing

The state department proposal, which could impact an estimated 65,000 visa applicants annually, is part of the “extreme vetting” announced by the Trump administration to keep out foreigners posing a national security threat.

world Updated: May 06, 2017 01:17 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, Washington
United States,non-immigration,social media platforms
While asking for Facebook, Instagram and Twitter names and handles, consular officers won’t ask for user passwords and will not “attempt to subvert any privacy controls”.(Reuters File)

The United States proposes to ask some applicants for non-immigration visas for their social media platforms and identifiers, such as Twitter handles, as part of the “extreme vetting” announced earlier by the Donald Trump administration to keep out foreigners posing terrorism-related or national security threat.

Additional details that could be asked may include details about siblings and children and other details such as travel history, employment, spouse(s) and passports, going back by 15 years — against the current five.

Travel history will include both international and domestic, which in the latter instance, could be to areas of a country said to have been “under the operational control of a terrorist organization” as defined by US immigration and nationality law.

Details sought of social media identifiers could include all handles and platforms on Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook used or issued over five years as well as all email IDs over the same period.

The new rules could go into force on May 18.

The state department, in a document submitted on Thursday to the federal register — a sort of gazette inviting comments on an impending set of measures — said an estimated 65,000 applicants annually, or 0.5% of applicants worldwide, will be impacted.

They will be picked, the document said, from “immigrant and non-immigrant visa applicants who have been determined to warrant additional scrutiny in connection with terrorism or other national security-related visa ineligibilities”.

And that determination, it added, will be based on individual circumstances and information they provide which will lead US consular officers at posts around the world to conclude the applicant warrants enhanced screening that takes into account the information that is proposed to be collected.

The new proposed rules will implement a March 6 memorandum ensuring “the proper collection of all information necessary to rigorously evaluate all grounds of inadmissibility or deportability, or grounds for the denial of other immigration benefits”.

It will not apply to any specific country or region or parts of the world as the six Muslim-majority nations identified for a temporary ban on new visas in an executive order. They will be enforced by consular officers around the world.

On social media identifiers, the document said the department of homeland security already collects details on a voluntary basis, but the state department could now seek them from applicants determined to be posing a terrorist or national security threat.

While asking for social media identifiers such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter names and handles, consular officers will not ask for user passwords and will not “attempt to subvert any privacy controls the applicants may have implemented”.

And they will be under direction to “not to engage or interact with individuals on or through social media; not to violate or attempt to violate individual privacy settings; and not to use social media or assess an individual’s social media presence beyond established department guidance”.

The state department document also said: “The collection of social media platforms and identifiers will not be used to deny visas based on applicants’ race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, political views, gender, or sexual orientation.”

And the failure to provide all the details sought may not necessarily lead to the denial of visa, if the consular officer is satisfied the applicant has provided “a credible explanation why he or she cannot answer a question or provide requested supporting documentation”.

These additional questions or requests for details could be sent to applicants via email or be presented orally or in writing at the time of their visa interview.

The new proposed requirements

• Travel history during the last fifteen years, including source of funding for travel

• Address history during the last fifteen years

• Employment history during the last 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 last five years

• Phone numbers and email addresses used during the last five years

First Published: May 05, 2017 20:26 IST