Last week, US Customs and Border Control proposed a slight change to the usual screening process for visitors applying for a visa at the border. Officials would like to add a field on the application asking for the social media usernames of foreign visitors who are planning to stay for up to 90 days. The question would be added to both the agency’s online system and the paper forms.
While the question is optional (for now), it’s not clear exactly how the government will use this information. The process already includes fingerprinting, an in-person interview and numerous database checks on the part of customs officials.
This new proposal is probably a reaction to the San Bernardino shooting. In that case, one of the attackers, Tashfeen Malik, declared allegiance to ISIS on social media, and sent numerous private messages discussing the potential attacks. Some have pointed out that a more robust screening process might have kept her from being granted a visa — but that ignores the fact that her post was made well after the screening process was completed, and that it was restricted to a close group of small friends, so it wouldn’t have been visible to anyone casually scrolling through her page.
In order prevent the attacks, law enforcement would have needed access to the shooter’s private messages well before the fact. Not only is that information which wouldn’t be uncovered by simply asking for a Facebook URL, it would be illegal to collect without a warrant. Though it shouldn’t need to be said, screening the private inboxes of everyone applying for a visa would be incredibly invasive, and would be probably be too logistically challenging to actually carry out effectively.
What is clear is that unless potential terrorists are loudly proclaiming their intentions on public Facebook pages or Twitter feeds, this measure will not keep dangerous people out of the country. It also does absolutely nothing to combat the issue of domestic terrorism.
While it would be wonderful to live in a world where counter-terrorism efforts were that simple, scanning through years of Facebook history is not a productive use of security officials’ time. Many of the most high-profile terrorist attacks around the world have been so chilling specifically because they came without any real warning. That’s exactly what makes terrorist tactics so effective for the organizations that carry them out. A small number of unhinged people with the poor judgement to post threats against the US publicly might be weeded out, but organized terrorist efforts will probably just become a little more secretive to avoid the extra scrutiny.
Over at The Atlantic, writer Kaveh Waddell points out that in addition to being ineffective, monitoring social media might turn the visa application process into a complete nightmare. In one experiment run by the Director of National Intelligence last year, 300 randomly selected government workers had their social media information screened using the same methods that would likely be applied to visiting travelers. A whopping 28 percent had something posted on their profiles that raised a red flag. These were all people who already held security clearances with the US government. If nearly a third of these people — who have already been thoroughly vetted for any potential threats — registered false positives, imagine how many tourists could end up being needlessly flagged.
All this is leaving aside perhaps the most important point — that people’s social media are rarely intended to be taken seriously. In one case in 2012, a UK tourist was denied entry into the US after Los Angeles airport officials discovered a tweet he had posted about his intentions to “destroy America.” The problem was that young Irish citizen wasn’t referring to any kind of attack on US soil. He was joking about how hard he intended to party. (He also referenced a Family Guy gag about digging up Marilyn Monroe’s grave, which should have been a clear indication that his posts were meant as a joke.)
The post was undeniably ill-advised, but not surprising. If border officials start scrutinizing the profiles of every person interested in entering the US, it’s more likely they’ll run into these types of misinterpreted jokes than it is that they’ll thwart actual terrorists. Is this a good use of their time, or taxpayer dollars?
Luckily, the new question hasn’t officially been added to customs forms yet. The proposal is open for comment for the next 60 days before it will even be formally considered. If you’d like to share your thoughts about the issue, you can mail your comments to Customs and Border Protection at this address.