Social Media

DHS adds social media to immigration files

file folders on a background with binary code 

The Department of Homeland Security announced Sept. 18 that it was adding social media and other public-facing information to its immigration records.

The move has generated alarm among privacy activists and generated a flurry of comments in the normally sleepy public docket.

Essentially, DHS announced that it was redefining what constitutes an official immigration file, expanding the scope of the record to include multiple electronic databases and paper records and adding social media handles and aliases, internet search results and information from "commercial data providers, and information shared obtained through information sharing agreements."

The Federal Register notice announcing the move gained wide publicity through a Sept. 25 BuzzFeed article

Part of the concern is that the immigration databases include data on naturalized U.S. citizens, in addition to lawful permanent residents and others receiving benefits from or being investigated by immigration agencies. The information is stored in the "A-file," which is retained according to federal records law and accessible to multiple agencies across the government.

Adam Schwartz, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told FCW that putting the information in the A-file "is a troubling new development."  

"It's apparently permanent storage, available to all manner of government officials, and there for use in all manner of decisions that affect people's immigration status," Schwartz said.

According to DHS, there's no new policy here.

"DHS, in its law-enforcement and immigration-process capacity, has and continues to monitor publicly-available social media to protect the homeland," agency spokesperson Joanne Talbot said in an email to FCW. "In an effort to be transparent, to comply with existing regulations, and due to updates in the electronic immigration system, DHS decided to update its corresponding Privacy Act system of records.  DHS published this notice in the Federal Register on Sept. 18 to comply with the administrative requirements of the Privacy Act to help address these requirements, not launch a new policy initiative."

DHS has been increasing its intake of social media information from travelers in recent years. In June 2016, DHS added social media information to the list of data it collected from travelers under the visa waiver program.

"I think that surveillance generally and surveillance of immigrants with social media tools sadly is a bipartisan affair," Schwartz said. "Many of these programs began under the last president, but it seems to be the case that [they] have escalated under the Trump administration."

DHS did not respond to follow-up questions from FCW about how the policy was intended to be used, or if it intended new collection of social media information or other public-facing online information on naturalized citizens.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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