What Happens When Visa Applicants Forget Their Old Social Media IDs?

After being pushed into it by Congress, Customs and Border Protection has been going through the rule-making process on asking visa applicants for their social media IDs. The idea is root out people like Tashfeen Malik, the wife in the San Bernardino attack couple, who spoke in radicalized terms on private messaging areas of Facebook before she came to the country.

At first, the idea was just to ask for applicants to turn over social media sites voluntarily. But given the pressure CBP already uses, even with US citizens, it’s easy to see how that “voluntary” request can be made to seem obligatory in the pressure of a border encounter.

But as Access Now points out, at the same time as extending the comment period (presumably hoping to get enough scared people commenting to balance out those who find this problematic), CBP also altered the proposed form to make it obligatory. There’s one other problem with the form:


The form requests “social media identifier,” not “identifiers.”

Now, I’ve long thought that the whole point of this wasn’t so much to find people engaged in radicalized discussions before the fact. Instead, it was about providing an excuse to deport people after they’ve been discovered, based off a claim they “lied” to CBP and thereby engaged in immigration fraud. Worse, they’ll probably dig up some social media account that someone made years earlier and forgot about it — could you remember every social media account you’ve ever set up?

Here, they’ve literally asked for one, singular, ID. Meaning someone could rightly put just their Facebook ID but then get deported for having not offered up their Twitter one.

Like I said: this is designed to be nothing more than a trap to provide an excuse for deporting someone based off something more fleeting than the old “Have you ever been a member of the Communist Party” question.

One final point: CBP also expanded how broadly they can share all this information. As I’ll write in a follow-up, I suspect it’s part of a larger, unannounced effort.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

5 replies
  1. bmaz says:

    Yeah, first they come for the visa applicants, and then Congress “pressures” them into doing it even to US citizens because of travelers like Rahami etc. Not that the govt has ability to check all the info, but will want to collect it all anyway.

  2. allan says:

    “nothing more than a trap to provide an excuse for deporting someone”
    … or pressuring them to become informants.

    And what is the exact definition of `social media’? Does commenting here count?

  3. wayoutwest says:

    CBP certainly failed in their mandate to screen visa applicants properly in the Malik/SB case and they will probably over compensate. Harassing US citizens returning to the country for political reasons is another story because they supposedly have rights that visitors do not enjoy.

    This failure in our border security was what Trump was addressing with his so called Muslim banning comments which were a direct response to the SB incident.

    The USG deports many foreigners for many different reasons so I doubt they need this trivial excuse to harass some immigrants. People who are allowed to enter the country and are later found to have terrorist connections or tendencies should be deported, shouldn’t they?

    What bothers me is that some people seem to think we should allow people who might attack us into the country because they are mixed into a larger group of peaceful immigrants and the winnowing process might offend some people’s PC views.

  4. P J Evans says:

    some people seem to think we should allow people who might attack us into the country because they are mixed into a larger group of peaceful immigrants and the winnowing process might offend some people’s PC views.


    PC is a buzzword that’s really popular with conservative types, who seem to think it means “not letting us say what we really think”. Also, any “winnowing process” that takes two or three years is probably going to find most of any existing terrorists trying to sneak through – and it might possiblymake the people being investigated winnowed more sympathetic to radicals later.

  5. wayoutwest says:

    It might be wise to be more conservative about this issue when the PC view of not offending groups or temporarily restricting Muslims entrance into the US has already caused death, injury. and fear. Improved and more efficient screening could help reduce the likelihood of problems and those applying for visas may be inconvenienced but if that drives some of them to violence perhaps they should seek refuge elsewhere.

Comments are closed.