Social Media

CBP details social media data on visa application

Shutterstock image: social media profiles.

Foreign visitors applying for Customs and Border Protection's Visa Waiver Program could be confused by proposed questions about their social media accounts and could end up sharing too much information with the government, a privacy advocacy group said.

The agency would like to ask applicants to provide their social media identifiers -- as many as 10 for all manner of social platforms, including Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter -- to help it with background checks before applicants arrive in the U.S.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation asked CBP some pointed questions about how that information would be used as the agency collects public comments on its proposal. EFF said the proposed wording could lead to applicants "oversharing" their passwords for those accounts along with the social media names they use on online.

In preliminary comments to EFF, agency officials said the information "will be used as an additional tool to further enhance the security vetting process and support the adjudication of Visa Waiver Program ineligibility waivers."

Officials told EFF that the information would give it "timely visibility of the publicly available information on those platforms consistent with [applicants'] privacy settings" on those accounts.

However, EFF said CBP has not said what the federal government would do if an applicant provides passwords to allow entry into his or her social media accounts.

In its preliminary responses, CBP said the Department of Homeland Security will retain, use and store the social media information just like other data collected through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) and will document the procedures in a System of Records Notice and a Privacy Impact Assessment.

The Visa Waiver Program has been under scrutiny since the terrorist attacks in Paris last year. Critics are concerned that the program, which allows visa-free travel to the U.S. from passport holders of 38 countries, does not collect enough information on applicants. There was a particular worry that travelers who had been through areas under the control of the Islamic State group could use the program to reach the U.S. via Europe.

CBP has been seeking to incorporate new data into the waiver application, which is processed through ESTA. Officials began implementing a number of procedural changes to ESTA in January to comply with the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015. For instance, travelers who have passed through Syria, Iran and Iraq are no longer eligible for the program and must apply for a visa instead. In mid-February, the State Department added Libya, Somalia and Yemen to the restricted list.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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