In a move designed to spot potential terror threats, the US government quietly began requesting select foreign visitors to provide their Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts upon arriving in the country, according to a media report. Since Tuesday, foreign travelers arriving in the United States on the visa waiver programme have been presented with an "optional” request to "enter information associated with your online presence”, a government official confirmed on Thursday.
Applicable only for select foreigners traveling under the visa waiver program, this new category now instructs them to dispense info about their social presence on the interwebs. The travelers need to first select one of the social networks from a drop-down menu and then fill in the corresponding username in the textbox next to them. It is optional to provide this info but has been added to keep a strict check on the security of the country.
The VWP is for citizens of nearly 38 countries that do not require a visa for tourism, business, or while in transit for up to 90 days when entering the US. However, they do need to get an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) as a valid travel document, during which time their social media info is sought.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) proposed the changes back in July. The measure is meant to meet the requirements of the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015. The act was a response to calls from the American public that visitors were not being screened thoroughly enough, in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings.
The government has faced a barrage of criticism since it first floated the idea last summer. The Internet Association, which represents companies including Facebook, Google and Twitter, at the time joined with consumer advocates to argue the draft policy threatened free expression and posed new privacy and security risks to foreigners.
"There are very few rules about how that information is being collected, maintained [and] disseminated to other agencies, and there are no guidelines about limiting the government’s use of that information,” said Michael W Macleod-Ball, chief of staff for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office.
"The choice to hand over this information is technically voluntary,” he said. "But the process to enter the U.S. is confusing, and it’s likely that most visitors will fill out the card completely rather than risk additional questions from intimidating, uniformed officers — the same officers who will decide which of your jokes are funny and which ones make you a security risk” said Nathan White, the senior legislative manager of Access Now.
DHS says it is collecting the information for vetting purposes. The move by the United States could spark similar measures by other countries, which may not follow the due process, or take sufficient measures to secure the collected information. While filling out the details are optional and voluntary, most visitors are likely to fill out the information.
The information is collected only from visitors who temporarily enter the United States through the Visa Waiver Program. The Visa Waiver Program allows travelers to enter the United States without a Visa for travel or business purposes, for a maximum period of 90 days. The program is only available to citizens of 38 countries, and India is not on the list.