The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last month issued a notice that it is storing social media information on immigrants, including lawful permanent residents and naturalized U.S. citizens, apparently indefinitely, in a government database that contains “Alien Files” (A-Files). This is an invasive new feature of DHS’s previously known programs on collecting social media information. DHS’s collection and storage of this sensitive information will chill and deter the free speech and association of immigrants to the United States, as well as the U.S. persons who communicate with them.
History of DHS Social Media Surveillance
DHS has a long history of collecting and scrutinizing social media information:
- DHS began monitoring social media at least as early as 2010. That year, the department launched pilot programs to monitor public posts to enhance the government’s “situational awareness” about unfolding natural disasters and other major events.
- At least as early as 2012, DHS began monitoring social media for more targeted “operational uses” that involve specific individuals (see Directive Number 110-01 and Instruction Number 110-01-001). For example, DHS scrutinizes public posts when “investigating an individual in a criminal, civil, or administrative context, making a benefit determination about a person, [or] making a personnel determination about a Department employee.” This 2012 policy permits DHS to collect social media information about those seeking U.S. immigration status, and it is the basis for last month’s A-File notice, according to a recent DHS statement.
- In 2015, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a DHS component agency, began pilot programs to “expand” social media surveillance and achieve “systematic screening” of those seeking U.S. immigration status (e.g., U.S. naturalized citizen, lawful permanent resident, or work visa), according to a report by the DHS Inspector General.
- At least since 2015, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, a DHS component agency, has been gathering intelligence from publicly available social media platforms, according to Policy Instruction IA-900 (which ACLU obtained via the Freedom of Information Act).
- In 2016, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a DHS component agency, along with the U.S. State Department, began a pilot program that used social media to evaluate those seeking non-immigrant visas to the United States, according to the same DHS Inspector General report. (See this chart listing all the immigrant and non-immigrant visas that the U.S. issues.)
- Later in 2016 and into 2017, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a DHS component agency, along with the U.S. State Department, made official the collection and evaluation of social media information of non-immigrant foreign visitors to the United States. EFF, along with several other rights groups, submitted comments opposing social media screening of visitors from visa-waiver countries, visa applicants from China, and visitors from around the world who seek visas from U.S. consular officials.
- DHS is currently developing an Extreme Vetting Initiative, which will deploy data-mining software to screen non-immigrant foreign visitors. Consistent with what DHS is already doing, this program reportedly will include the collection of publicly available social media information, as well as data gleaned from “blogs, public hearings, conferences, academic websites, radio, [and] television,” among other sources.
- CBP officers often ask travelers crossing the U.S. border, including U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, for their social media identifiers. CBP officers also interrogate international travelers about the content of their social media profiles, including one of the plaintiffs in the new EFF-ACLU lawsuit against DHS’s warrantless border device searches. Additionally, CBP officers have searched social media apps on mobile devices; however, the agency recently instructed its officers not to search cloud content via mobile devices.
New Details Emerge About Social Media Surveillance of Immigrants
The new DHS notice illuminates several critical things that the public previously did not know about DHS’s programs of social media surveillance of immigrants: 1) what data is being collected, 2) where this data is being stored, 3) how long this data is being retained, 4) what this data is being used for, and 5) who this data is shared with.