Millions of visitors to US face social media screening

In September, the Trump administration announced that applicants for immigrant visas would be asked for social media data, which could affect 710,000 people or so a year.
In September, the Trump administration announced that applicants for immigrant visas would be asked for social media data, which could affect 710,000 people or so a year. PHOTO: AFP

Proposed rules will require 14.7million a year to submit their user names for past five years

NEW YORK • Nearly all applicants for a visa to enter the US - an estimated 14.7 million people a year - will be asked to submit their social media user names for the past five years under proposed rules.

In September, the Trump administration announced that applicants for immigrant visas would be asked for social media data, which could affect 710,000 people or so a year.

The new proposal, announced by the State Department on Friday, would expand that order to cover some 14 million people a year who apply for non-immigrant visas.

The rules cover 20 social media platforms. Most are based in the United States: Facebook, Flickr, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, Myspace, Pinterest, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, Vine and YouTube. But some are based overseas: the Chinese sites Douban, QQ, Sina Weibo, Tencent Weibo and Youku; the Russian social network VK; Twoo, created in Belgium; and Ask.fm, a question-and-answer platform based in Latvia.

"Maintaining robust screening standards for visa applicants is a dynamic practice that must adapt to emerging threats," the State Department said in a statement.

During his election campaign, President Donald Trump promised "extreme vetting" of people seeking to enter the US, and last May, consular officials were instructed to collect social media identifiers only when they determined that such information is required to confirm identity or conduct more rigorous national security vetting.

But the new proposal, if approved by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), would add a tangible requirement for millions of people who apply to visit the US for business or pleasure, including citizens of such countries as Brazil, China, India and Mexico.

Singaporean professionals who wish to work in the US can currently apply for the nonimmigrant H-1B and H-1B1 visas. The Straits Times has previously reported that, in 2015, 333 H-1B visas and 551 H-1B1 visas were issued to Singaporeans, citing data provided by the US Embassy.

Singaporeans who travel to the US on holiday will not be affected by the new vetting requirement, as with the citizens of some 40 other countries such as Australia, Britain and Japan to which the US grants visa-free travel.

In addition, visitors travelling on diplomatic and official visas will mostly be exempted.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the move would have a "chilling" effect on freedom of speech and association. "People will now have to wonder if what they say online will be misconstrued or misunderstood by a government official," Ms Hina Shamsi, director ACLU's National Security Project, said in a statement.

Facebook said it opposes any efforts to force travellers to turn over their private account information.

The new State Department requirements will not take effect immediately. The proposal set off a 60-day period for public comment, which ends May 29, before the OMB approves or rejects them. If approved, the measures also will require applicants to submit five years of previously used telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and their international travel history.

On Sina Weibo, one of China's largest social-media platforms, several users were critical of the plan. "Does it mean someone's visa application will likely be rejected if he/she has been critical of the US?" one wrote. Another wrote: "We Chinese have learnt well enough the lessons to be drawn from isolation. Now it's America's turn."

NYTIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 01, 2018, with the headline 'Millions of visitors to US face social media screening'. Print Edition | Subscribe