In a notice quietly posted in the Federal Register last month, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that beginning October 18, individuals who go through the U.S. immigration process will have their social media activity included in their file. This change in policy is effective for all applicants for entry and immigration into the U.S. as well as naturalized citizens and permanent residents.
According to the notice, “social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information and search results” have been formally included in an applicant’s immigration history – part of a unified, streamlined file to be shared and passed along multiple government agencies including the DHS itself, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as well as US Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
The change was made in accordance with the Privacy Act of 1974, particularly modifying the DHS system of records titled “Alien File, Index, and National File Tracking System of Records.” This, the notice states, is a “system of records [containing] information regarding transactions involving an individual as he or she passes through the US immigration process” accessible to all concerned government agencies.
As early as 2016, Homeland Security said it was considering the possibility of monitoring social media as a means to spot terrorist threats and potentially deter terrorist activity. The announcement came in the wake of the 2015 San Bernardino attack, where one of the perpetrators was reported to have openly expressed their extremist views on their social media profiles prior to the attack.
James Comey, FBI director at the time of the attack, debunked these reports, stating that the social media activity indicative of a terrorist threat were not public posts but “direct, private messages” among the perpetrators. Private messages would not have been accessible to the concerned authorities, and the recent policy change will make no changes to the availability of private social media communications to government agencies.
News of the policy expansion has drawn backlash and criticism from the legal community, raising questions regarding the effectiveness of social media monitoring in identifying terrorist threats, its political implications, and potential invasion of privacy.
In response to these criticisms, the DHS said the announcement is part of the agency’s efforts to be more transparent and to comply with existing regulations updates to the electronic immigration system. The agency added the notice comes in response to administrative requirements of the Privacy Act and is not a new policy initiative.
If you, or a loved one, are concerned about this change and what it means for the immigration process, get in touch with the Lyttle Law Firm. Call our offices to talk about your rights with immigration attorney Daniella Lyttle.