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Government Expands Social Media Monitoring of Immigration Applicants

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law issued an investigative report detailing the extent of the greatly increased monitoring of social media by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Monitoring social media sites by DHS is not new; the department has been using the technique for over ten years. As early as 2008 (and perhaps even earlier), the Office of Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) at Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS, part of DHS) studied social media postings in its investigations against benefit fraud. In 2017, DHS published a new rule saying that it will add social media handles, aliases and associated identifiable information, along with search results, to an immigrant’s alien file (A-file). However, little was known about the scope of DHS monitoring. The Brennan Center report describes just how extensive DHS data collection is.

According the report, DHS is building a massive database, which includes social media activity. For example, in 2016, DHS began to ask the nearly 24 million travelers who come to the United States annually from Western Europe and other countries that are party to the Visa Waiver Program to volunteer their social media user information. In 2018, the State Department began to require all visa applicants (about 15 million people each year) to provide their social media identifiers. DHS also gathers information from warrantless searches of electronic devices at the border. In addition, DHS acquires social media material from commercial databases.

When DHS gathers information on a visa applicant’s or immigrant’s contacts, this may include family, friends, business associates, social acquaintances, members of online communities and even local businesses. Inevitably, material about United States citizens has been caught up in the information gathering by DHS. This information may be kept for decades. The department’s social media searches have not been limited to people suspected of crimes.

DHS uses commercial software to analyze the vast amount of social media data it collects. For example, the data-mining company Palantir currently has a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that has so far totaled 51.6 million dollars. ICE also signed a $2.4 million contract with Pen-Link a company that describes its services as collecting and analyzing “massive amounts of social media and internet communications data.”

The information that DHS collects, especially from commercial databases, is not always accurate. Private databases fail to provide context and often contain errors. In a pilot program, USCIS found a manual review more effective than an automated screening tool it tested. The tool did not always match the media account with the correct applicant. Immigration officers needed to check the results manually.

The Brennan Center report notes that DHS has low privacy standards. DHS shares information with other federal agencies, state and local governments, various subcontractors and even other countries. This information-sharing has not been limited to intelligence on terrorism. On at least one occasion, the information shared with another country (Mexico) involved journalists and political activists.

How effective is the monitoring of social media at catching immigration fraud and stopping potential terrorists? No one knows, including DHS. In 2017, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) at DHS issued a report giving the results of an examination of the department’s pilot programs to screen social media. It found that because “these pilots, on which DHS plans to base future department-wide use of social media screening, lack criteria for measuring performance to ensure they meet their objectives.” The report stated that DHS needed to establish “well-defined, clear, and measurable objectives and standards for determining pilot performance.”

While there is a legitimate use for searching social media while investigating terrorism, fraud and other crimes, the Brennan Center report raises serious questions about the ever expanding social media data collection by DHS. How much information is enough? How accurate and how useful is all this information? Are civil liberties, privacy rights and guarantees against discrimination adequately protected? The Brennan Center concludes that the social media monitoring by DHS needs to be accompanied by clear limits and vigorous oversight.


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