Why the government should abandon its plan to vet foreigners on Facebook


Rachel Levinson-Waldman, a lawyer and academic, looks at federal agencies' monitoring of visitors' social media handles:

The Department of Homeland Security has been capitalizing on the availability of social media data, asking foreign visitors for their social media handles. This summer saw the latest development from one DHS agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is seeking to mine social media to make sweeping predictions about foreign visitors to the United States — and, by extension, monitoring the Americans in their network.

She concludes:

Setting aside for a moment whether a program could even do what ICE hopes it will accomplish, it is an enormously dangerous proposition. As a group of more than 50 civil society organizations pointed out to DHS in a letter released in November, it is likely to be custom-built for discrimination. In addition to the fact that the scheme was birthed from the travel ban, a watered-down version of which was found by an appeals court to “drip with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination,” it arises in the context of Trump’s derogatory statements about a range of immigrant groups. It is easy to imagine that a system built in that environment will disadvantage groups targeted by the president, whether intentionally or through the use of ill-conceived tools to measure an individual’s contributions to society.
The initiative is also likely to chill speech and association that is protected by the U.S. Constitution and by international human rights frameworks. Any visitor who knows that her online communications will be scrutinized by the U.S. government — not just as a one-time matter, but continuously for the duration of her stay — will choose her words carefully, perhaps choosing not to post messages that are critical of government policies or that discuss views disfavored by the current administration. U.S. citizens might exercise greater caution in speaking, meeting or collaborating with foreign visitors, worried that their speech will attract attention as well. And as a practical matter, it is highly implausible that a program purporting to scrutinize the Internet would pick up only materials that are posted by or related to foreign visitors; rather, it will sweep in vast quantities of content about lawful permanent residents and citizens as well.


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