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The U.S. wants to screen visa applicants’ social media accounts

Creepy new rules would come into effect this summer for 15 million visa applicants, including Canadians.

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Apr 4 2018, 5:49pm

The Canadian government isn’t publicly opposing new rules proposed by the U.S. government that would screen visa applicants’ social media profiles from the last five years.

Despite warnings from civil liberties advocates on both sides of the border, a Global Affairs spokesperson said Wednesday that Canada is aware of the changes, but would not say whether the government condemns them or not.

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On Friday, the U.S. State Department published two notices declaring that under newly proposed rules, immigrant and non-immigrant visa applicants will need to provide their social media handles, phone numbers, email addresses and international travel for the last five years. Officials would screen Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, the State Department told VICE News.

New screening questions would also ask whether the applicant has been deported from any country, and whether their family members have been involved in “terrorist activities.”

'FAIR TREATMENT'

The new rules would affect Canadian visa applicants, but it’s too soon to say whether Canadians will shrug off the new changes, or cancel their plans to prevent five years of social media data from being collected. In most cases, Canadian citizens don’t need visitor, business, transit or other visas to enter the U.S.

“Every country or territory decides who can enter or exit through its borders,” a spokesperson from Global Affairs said in a statement. “Canada expects that Canadians travelling, studying and working abroad will receive fair and equal treatment under local laws, and that international law is respected.”

The creepy new requirements, which could come into effect as soon as this summer, are part of the President Donald Trump’s push to prevent terrorist attacks through “extreme vetting” of those entering the U.S. Previous moves have included a travel ban on citizens from some Muslim-majority countries, and extra information requirements from skilled foreign workers.

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Under rules introduced in May 2017, the State Department previously screened the social media accounts of about 0.5 percent of visa applicants, or about 65,000 people. The new rules would apply to nearly everyone who applies for a U.S. visa — about 15 million people.

“Consular officers will not request user passwords and will not attempt to subvert any privacy controls,” a State Department spokesperson told VICE News on Tuesday. Officials also won’t interact with applicants on social media, the spokesperson said.

Asked how long social media data could be stored, the department wouldn’t say. “The retention period varies, depending on the nature and disposition of the visa application,” the spokesperson said.

The proposal does not say whether the data would be shared with other agencies, whether accounts would be screened by humans or bots, or exactly what would be flagged as grounds to reject an applicant.

Civil liberties advocates are warning these new rules will chill free speech for both visa applicants and U.S. citizens, who are connected to the social media accounts of family members who apply for visas.

“When people know there’s a possibility that the government is monitoring them, they change the way that they engage and how they speak,” Manar Waheed, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union told VICE News over the phone Monday.

Once that information is swept up, we don’t know how it’s going to be used

“Once that information is swept up, we don’t know how it’s going to be used,” she continued. “Will it be shared with immigration enforcement? Will it be shared with the FBI, or local law enforcement?”

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The notice refers to “terrorist activities,” but does not define these or specify what factors would indicate terrorism, Waheed said. Based on the way the notice is worded, “it’s very likely that this will have an adverse effect on people from Muslim majority countries,” she said. It could also impact Muslim Canadians, she added.

Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, told VICE News the data dumping of social media profiles is “too high a privacy price to pay” and demanded the Canadian government take action.

LEGITIMATE EXPRESSION

Canadian privacy lawyer David Fraser said he wasn’t surprised to see the new changes.

Fraser said he could imagine a scenario similar to 9/11 where an immigrant is admitted to the country, commits a terrorist attack, and it is later revealed that he had been tweeting ISIS propaganda. “So I can see the impulse of bureaucrats saying, we need to make sure we’ve headed this off.” And, he continued, non-Americans do not have the right to enter the United States — citizens of most countries have to apply for visas, and it’s up to the U.S. to determine whether they want them to enter the country.

What are they doing if anything to make sure this doesn’t have an impact on legitimate expression?

“My main concern is, if they’re going to ask [for social media accounts], and they’re looking for bona fide evidence of inadmissibility, what are they doing if anything to make sure this doesn’t have an impact on legitimate expression?” he asked.

The State Department is soliciting public input about the proposed rules, up until May 29. Members of the public can submit comments through online forms at the top of the two State Department notices, found here and here.

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