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September 6, 2016

U.S. Visa Program Would Scan Social Media Data

George Leopold

Data industry groups are cautioning the government to take a middle course on a proposal to collect social media data about foreign travelers entering the U.S. under a visa waiver program.

At issue is whether visitors from certain countries should be required to supply social media “identifiers” under the visa waiver program overseen by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is considering whether and how to collect data requested for entering the U.S. without a visa for a stay of less than 90 days. The agency argues that social media data provides an “additional tool set [that] analysts and investigators may use to better analyze and investigate” suspicious activity or associations. DHS argues that online profiles on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook can help corroborate information about a person’s identity, location history, occupation and other relevant factors to the traveler screening process.

In comments responding to the DHS social media proposal, the Washington-based Center for Data Innovation called for a pilot study to determine the proposal’s impact on national security whether it can strike a balance between security and protecting the privacy rights of foreign travelers.

DHS should “proceed with this data collection to study the effectiveness of such an effort, but it should refrain from using the data on a widespread basis until it can verify that it has produced a system that delivers useful results,” the industry group noted in reply comments.

It also called on the agency to work closely with civil liberties monitors as it designs a system to collect social media information on foreign travelers. The agency further should collaborate with industry to “improve the accuracy of any systems it uses to analyze or make predictions with this data.”

Among the privacy concerns spawned by the traveler screening proposal is that the system could generate false alarms if not implemented correctly. While tools can be used to extract location data from a Twitter user’s public account, for example, to verify travel history, travelers with “something to hide” would likely not volunteer information. Too, much social media information is posted privately and would be inaccessible to the government.

DHS is proposing that an “optional data field” be added to a U.S. customs arrival form where travelers could choose to provide a “social media identifier” for specific platforms. In its comments, the data industry group also called on DHS to specify which social media platforms it is considering for collecting travel information, noting that the availability of data varies across difference services, as does format and language.

“While it remains to be seen whether DHS can effectively use social media data for this purpose and any implementation should undergo a thorough review, these types of innovative practices should be encouraged within the federal government,” added Daniel Castro, director of the Center for Data Innovation.

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