US turns to social media screening

US turns to social media screening
US authorities have put forth a proposal calling for the screening of the social media activities of those seeking entry to the United States. If approved, this will affect..

US authorities have put forth a proposal calling for the screening of the social media activities of those seeking entry to the United States. If approved, this will affect 14.7 million people annually.

Background

Social media are computer-mediated technologies that facilitate the creation and sharing of information, ideas, career interests and other forms of expression via virtual communities and networks.According to Nielsen, Internet users continue to spend more time on social media sites than on any other type of site. At the same time, the total time spent on social media sites in the U.S. across PCs as well as on mobile devices increased by 99% to 121 billion minutes in July 2012 compared to 66 billion minutes in July 2011.

The largest social media platform in the world is Facebook. Launched by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004 along with some of his Harvard roommates, it was almost instantly a hit amongst users. As of June 2017, Zuckerberg said that Facebook had two billion users monthly. Studies now estimate that people now get most of their news updates either through Facebook or through other social media platforms like Twitter. It has been suggested that social media played a crucial role in the recent US Presidential elections, French elections and more. With regard to the American Presidential elections, reports have emerged of Russian players using Facebook to create division in USA. In India, politicians have spoken about how unverified Facebook videos have been used to incite communal violence among millions.

Analysis

In a move that might affect more than 14 million people, the US federal government is currently proposing to screen the social media activities of those seeking entry to the United States. The news was confirmed through a state department filing.

If this proposal gets approved, then applicants seeking to enter America (immigrant and non immigrant visas) will have to list all their social media profiles. US President Donald Trump has often spoken of “extreme vetting” and said that it was required to keep terror elements out of the United States. In November 2017, following the deadly attack in New York that killed at least eight people and injured a dozen, Trump tweeted, “I have just ordered Homeland Security to step up our already Extreme Vetting Program. Being politically correct is fine, but not for this!”

According to media reports, this move will affect 14.7 million people around the world on an annual basis. The BBC notes that applications “would also be asked for five years of their telephone numbers, email addresses and travel history. They would be required to say if they had ever been deported from a country, or if any relatives had been involved in terrorist activity.”

"Maintaining robust screening standards for visa applicants is a dynamic practice that must adapt to emerging threats," the state department said in a statement, quoted by the New York Times. “We already request limited contact information, travel history, family member information, and previous addresses from all visa applicants. Collecting this additional information from visa applicants will strengthen our process for vetting these applicants and confirming their identity."

The development has been met by criticism from experts who state that social media activities can be misconstrued. “People will now have to wonder if what they say online will be misconstrued or misunderstood by a government official,” Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, said in a statement.“We’re also concerned about how the Trump administration defines the vague and over-broad term ‘terrorist activities’ because it is inherently political and can be used to discriminate against immigrants who have done nothing wrong,” she said. She added, “There is a real risk that social media vetting will unfairly target immigrants and travellers from Muslim-majority countries for discriminatory visa denials, without doing anything to protect national security.”

Assessment

Our assessment is that as threat vectors continue to increase around the world, nations are seeking newer measures to keep borders secure. However, there are genuine concerns over whether social media opinions expressed by individuals would be misconstrued by authorities screening profiles. In addition, there are also fears that such measures would be used to specifically target those coming from Muslim majority nations. There are also fears that this would be an infringement of privacy.

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