DHS introduces new measures to monitor social media of immigrant communities

Illustration Elise Degarmo

The Department of Homeland Security will collect information from social media accounts of naturalized and permanent residents starting October 18.

The move has raised red flags for privacy and immigrant rights groups around the country because the agency has not said how the information will be used.

This change in policy comes as a way for the DHS to streamline their databases on new arrivals and persons living in the United States, legally or illegally.

This change follows steps taken by the Trump Administration to implement ‘extreme vetting’ systems for new arrivals. In May, a new questionnaire was released for visa applicants that required all social media handles from the previous five years and biographical data including home addresses, travel and more from the past 15 years.

Tracking of social media and general online activity is not an unfamiliar practice.

The Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency are notorious for their surveillance of immigrants and communities of color following the 9/11 attacks.

According to the Federal Register, the amendment to the agency’s policy plans to, “…expand the categories of records to include the following: country of nationality; country of residence; the USCIS Online Account Number; social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results.”

Chris Whyte, an assistant professor in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, specializes in cyber conflict and security. He said the point of interest is why the DHS is looking into permanent and naturalized citizens and what exactly the agency plans to do with the information.

“The part about permanent and naturalized citizens is extremely vague,” Whyte said. “We don’t know to what extent the government is going to monitor and collect data on individuals like myself who is a permanent resident, or my sister who is a naturalized citizen. The question is: when does the collection stop once a person has become a fully integrated citizen?”

According to the Federal Register, the DHS mentions tracking social media accounts isn’t necessarily a new policy, but under the Privacy Act, they wanted to be transparent about their methods of collection.

Whyte suggested that legal challenges to the agency’s data collection may arise on two fronts: if the DHS turns to internet service providers for user information or if they continue monitoring people who are completely out of the immigration process.

Internet service providers like Verizon and Comcast have records of all online activity of their users. As of now, there are no regulations on what user information ISPs can release to those who come asking for it.

“If it comes out that they are collecting data on people who are fully out of the immigration process and are naturalized citizens then those people have the standing to bring a constitutional challenge to this kind of policy,” Whyte said.

Cyber security experts speculated these policy changes arose from the San Bernardino shooting in California where two terrorists lead an attack on an office party in 2015. One of the shooters, Tashfeen Malik, had private messages on her social media accounts from Islamic State recruiters who encouraged her to organize an attack.

However, Whyte said that there is awareness that the metrics used by DHS to gage immigration status and the likelihood of terrorism are systematically inefficient.

“They are good at catching sham marriages on Facebook, but not necessarily terrorists who are recruiting through these platforms,” Whyte said. “I think the DHS has to be more forthcoming about how they plan to use this collected data.”  

The DHS hopes by taking these new measures, they will be able to create an efficient database and develop a guideline to flag any information online that could lead to recruitment, radicalization or an attack.

Charlie Schmidt of the American Civil Liberties Union in Virginia said these new policies, though concerning, will be difficult to take to court.

“It’s another way to keep track of people we always keep track of, but the problem is we don’t know what they’re going to use it for,” Schmidt said.

He argued the CIA and NSA often collect this data and keep it on a shelf until it’s needed for national security purposes. However, the DHS doesn’t function like the other organizations, therefore there’s no clear purpose of the data collection.

In terms of mass surveillance, Schmidt said it deviates from the country’s democratic values to scrutinize its population when the chances of catching a terrorist are so low.

“Its crazy to think that an immigrant is going to fill out that form correctly with all of their social media handles and then catch them in the act,” Schmidt said.

Five percent of VCU’s population consists of international students. Students come from roughly 102 countries from all around the world including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and China. Technically, under the department’s new policy, these students will all be subjected to having their social media accounts monitored.

Both Schmidt and Whyte agree students shouldn’t worry about what they are posting online more so than they did before these policies were changed, but are happy that there is conversation circulating around the topic.

“It’s one of those things that’s going to take people talking about it and to stand up against these policies of mass surveillance and distrust of communities who are leaders within the greater American society,” Schmidt said. “In particular for students – especially students with citizenship, they have the responsibility to keep pushing the conversation and to keep advocating.”


Hiba Ahmad
Hiba is a senior studying broadcast journalism and religious studies. She is a previous Voice of America intern where she worked with the immigration and TV news teams. She previously interned with the Muslim Public Affairs Council and VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture.
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