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U.S. Customs requesting social media details at border

Fri 23 Dec 2016

The U.S. Customs department has started asking that international visitors provide social media account information upon entering the country. This move, widely criticized since it was first proposed last June, is intended to help the government spot potential terrorist threats.

Travelers arriving in the United States have been asked to enter social media account information through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). Foreign visitors to the U.S. who travel under the visa waiver program are required to complete the ESTA.

The visa waiver program is a popular option for visitors, as it allows citizens of 38 approved countries to remain in the U.S. for up to 90 days without a visa.

The request for social media information on the ESTA is presented as an optional, rather than required response. It provides visitors with a drop down box listing social media platforms Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube, and a space to write in user names for each site.

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Customs and Border Control, first proposed the change last summer and were met with a barrage of criticism from civil liberties groups and from the Internet Association, a political lobbying group formed by technology companies including Facebook, Google, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Criticisms of the proposed program revolved around the fact that allowing customs officials access to social media accounts would grant unprecedented access to traveler’s private lives. Concerns were also raised that the program would be copied by other countries, “for democratic and non-democratic countries alike, including those that do not have the same human rights and due process standards as the U.S.” This could create safety concerns not only for foreign visitors to the United States, but if expanded, could jeopardize the safety of travelers worldwide.

The ACLU also objected to the fact that the information request was presented as a mere change to form, rather than policy, and that no provision was made for the use, containment or disposal of collected information. In its official response the ACLU stated, “The proposed information request inherently changes the VWP (Visa Waiver Program) approval process from a routine procedural data crosscheck to a subjective assessment of unreliable and circumstantial information.”


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