McCain wants to scrutinize social media of U.S. visitors

McCain at Heritage today.

Sen. John McCain wants DHS to monitor the social media activities of foreigners applying for U.S. visas to identify potential terrorists.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain introduced a bill Dec. 15 that would require the Department of Homeland Security to scour the social media presence of foreign travelers to the United States.

The Arizona Republican's bill is one of several possible legislative reactions to the recent attacks in San Bernardino, Calif. One of the killers, Tashfeen Malik, posted allegiance on Facebook to the so-called Islamic State before launching a rampage that left 14 dead, and FBI officials say she posted extensively on social media about jihad and martyrdom prior to receiving an immigration visa in 2014.

The legislation comes on the heels of an ABC News report that DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson declined in early 2014 to end a secret policy barring immigration officials from reviewing the social media activities of foreigners applying for U.S. visas, fearing a public relations backlash.

"It's clear that there is no policy in DHS as far as looking at their social media, so now we're going to require them to," McCain told reporters on Capitol Hill. "Most Americans thought that would be an obvious course of action."

Some lawmakers aren't waiting for legislation to force DHS' hand. Twenty-one Senate Democrats, along with independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, sent a letter on Dec. 15 urging Johnson to immediately include the social media background checks in the U.S. visa process.

McCain's legislation follows another, likely more controversial, bill introduced earlier this month by Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairman and vice chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, respectively. That legislation would require social media platforms that become aware of terrorist activity on their services -- such as attack planning or recruitment -- to notify law enforcement.

Tech companies have objected strongly to the Burr-Feinstein bill, however. The legislation is an "unworkable standard for reporting and a massive new liability regime that could chill free speech and innovation online, without any appreciable national security benefits," said Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association, in a statement reported by the Associated Press. The Internet Association's members include Facebook and Twitter.

Last week, Burr fired a salvo in response to criticism of the bill from the tech sector.

"How can you be against taking down inflammatory statements and videos that deal with terrorism?" Burr asked reporters. (The bill covers the reporting of threats, not taking down videos.) "They don't have a leg to stand on the position they're taking as to why they're against it, and this is light in comparison to what the reaction and the remedy is going to be for encryption."

McCain's bill "puts the onus on DHS, while Feinstein and Burr's bill puts the onus on the tech companies," McCain spokeswoman Julie Tarallo told FCW, identifying a crucial difference between the two bills.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence issues. Prior to joining FCW, he was a reporter and editor at Smart Grid Today, where he covered everything from cyber vulnerabilities in the U.S. electric grid to the national energy policies of Britain and Mexico. His reporting on a range of global issues has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Economist, The Washington Diplomat and The Washington Post.

Lyngaas is an active member of the National Press Club, where he served as chairman of the Young Members Committee. He earned his M.A. in international affairs from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and his B.A. in public policy from Duke University.

Click here for previous articles by Lyngaas, or connect with him on Twitter: @snlyngaas.


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