Tuesday, June 28, 2016


U.S. may soon snoop around foreign travelers' Facebook, Twitter accounts.

U.S. may screen foreign travelers' Facebook, Twitter accounts.

The government’s next plan to curb terrorism involves snooping around the Facebook profiles of foreign travelers.

Non-citizens traveling to the U.S. on a visa waiver could be asked about their online presence and social media profiles — but not their account passwords — by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.

Though CBP already screens foreign travelers with in-person interviews and database checks, collecting social media accounts is specifically meant to track activity that could pose threats to “national security,” according to a proposal submitted by CBP and published in the Federal Register late last week.

“Collecting social media data will enhance the existing investigative process and provide DHS greater clarity and visibility to possible nefarious activity,” the proposal said.

The proposal indicates CBP recognizes the way individual attackers and extremist groups are using social media to spread terror. But some questioned whether it would be that effective, given visitors could choose to avoid divulging their social media handles.


Two recent mass shootings with connections to established terrorist groups – in San Bernardino and in Orlando, Fla. –   were at the hands of killers adept at using social media.

The California attackers whose shooting rampage killed 14 posted messages of support to Islamic State on their social media profiles.

Omar Mateen, whose massacre at a Orlando night club killed 49, pledged support to ISIS on Facebook.

Twitter, Facebook and other social media services have been criticized for allowing terrorists to spread their message and influence others on their platforms.

The family of a victim of the Paris terrorist attacks in November sued Facebook, Google and Twitter, claiming the companies allowed the Islamic State to spread propaganda to attract and train new recruits and celebrate attacks.

Facebook called the lawsuit without merit and said anyone can report terrorist accounts or content to the service. "We work aggressively to remove such content as soon as we become aware of it," a statement at the time read. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

Twitter says users that promote terrorism are subject to permanent suspension from the platform.

"We condemn the use of Twitter to promote terrorism and the Twitter Rules make it clear that this type of behavior, or any violent threat, is not permitted on our service," read a Twitter statement.

The government has already called upon Silicon Valley to do more to filter out terrorists. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced a bill in December which would require tech companies to report online terrorist activity to law enforcement.

"We're in a new age where terrorist groups like ISIL are using social media to reinvent how they recruit and plot attacks," Feinstein said in a press release at the time.

"That information can be the key to identifying and stopping terrorist recruitment or a terrorist attack, but we need the help from technology companies."


The new CBP proposal, which has a 60-day comment period, may not have flagged the Orlando or San Bernardino shootings, as both the attackers were either citizens or permanent residents.

Beyond that practical shortfall, some questioned whether moves to track IS' reach online would amount to much.

ISIL gains power most prominently by acquiring land and people in Syria and Iraq, and only uses social media to arrogantly brag about their conquests, Max Abrahms, professor of political science at Northeastern University, said. Posting massacres online can even lead governments to become more resolute in fighting the extremists.

“I think that this entire initiative of trying to combat IS by becoming more savvy online is mistaken,” Abrahms said.

CBP has also flubbed when screening social media accounts of foreign travelers. In a well-documented incident in 2012, two European friends were detained entering the U.S. through the Los Angeles International Airport after they tweeted they wanted to "destroy America," an apparent reference to the heavy partying they planned for their visit.

The Department of Homeland Security questioned the pair for five hours, handcuffed and locked them in separate holding cells for 12 hours, before sending them on a flight home.

Ira Mehlman, spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said he does not oppose asking foreign travelers for their social media accounts, as the job of immigration officers is to ensure those traveling into the U.S. are not threats to safety, and social media could be an indicator for dangerous behavior.

"For the most part your social media profile is public record," Mehlman added. "Anybody can look to anybody's Facebook page, you can see what's on there, and you don't need permission."

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