US to collect social media profiles from immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees

The process of getting refugee status, a green card, and citizenship will become way more intrusive.

US flag

Image: Ben Mater

The Department of Homeland Security plans to expand its social media profile collection program from US visa applicants to also include data from immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees.

The DHS published a notice on the federal registry describing its future data collection practice this week.

The agency plans to ask immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees to provide usernames -- without passwords -- for 19 social networking sites:

  • Ask.fm (Q&A site)
  • Douban (China-based social network)
  • Facebook (social network)
  • Flickr (image hosting portal)
  • Instagram (image sharing social network)
  • LinkedIn (job seeking portal)
  • MySpace (social network)
  • Pinterest (image saving/categorization service)
  • QZone (QQ) (China-based social network, IM app)
  • Reddit (discussion board)
  • Sina Weibo (China-based microblogging service)
  • Tencent Weibo (China-based microblogging service)
  • Tumblr (blogging platform)
  • Twitter (microblogging service)
  • Twoo (Belgium-based social network)
  • Vine (video sharing site)
  • VKontakte (VK) (Russia-based social network)
  • Youke (China-based video sharing portal)
  • YouTube (video sharing portal)

These are the same social media profiles that the DHS had been collecting through the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency from US visa applications -- people who applied for entry in the US from a country where a visa card is required.

The DHS has been collecting social media profile information from visa applicants since December 2016. Initially, the social media profile fields were optional, but the DHS made themobligatory for all visa applications in May, this year. See a full timeline here.

The AP reported back in June that the DHS was planning to expand this procedure, but did not provide any details. The federal registry submission this week explains the changes in greater detail.

Per the official document, immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees will be required to list all the social media platforms they used in the past five years, along with the respective usernames.

The DHS plans to update the following forms to add social media collection fields:

  • Form N-400 - document immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees must file for beginning the naturalization procedure.
  • Form I-131 - document that refugees must file when wanting to travel abroad the US and be allowed re-entry into the US.
  • Form I-192 - document that inadmissible aliens must file to temporarily enter the US for legitimate reasons.
  • Form I-485 - document that immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees must file for obtaining permanent residence in the US (for obtaining a green card).
  • Form I-589 - document aliens must file for asylum in the US.
  • Form I-590 - document aliens must file for refugee status in the US.
  • Form I-730 - document that approved asylum seekers and refugees can file to bring in family members in the US.

In June, the DHS said that lying or withholding data from these forms would have serious consequences towards an application's chance of approval.

The procedure has been marred by problems. Just in the past two weeks, two cases emerged where travelers holding a valid visa were denied entry into the US for social media posts made by their friends [case 1, case 2].

The DHS has never detailed what searches and investigations CBP and other employees carry out based on the provided social media profile information.

Applicants for green cards or US citizenship may not be too happy with the DHS' upcoming plan.

The program will also draw the ire of privacy advocates. In 2016, the the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called the DHS' proposal to collect social media profile from visa applicants "an intelligence surveillance program clothed as a customs administration mechanism."

The DHS will be seeking comments and insight from interested parties on its new rules until November 4, when the process will move forward for approval and implementation.