DHS plan to collect immigrants' social media gets roasted in the comments

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A controversial proposal by the Department of Homeland Security to collect social media information on permanent residents and naturalized citizens in the master "A-file" that covers immigration data is being roundly criticized by privacy rights groups and advocates for immigrants.

A-files are the single repository of an individual immigrant or naturalized citizen's case file, and can be accessed routinely by DHS personnel and law enforcement across multiple agencies for a variety of investigative purposes.

The proposal, announced in September, generated more than 4,100 comments, the vast majority in opposition to the plan.

An agency spokesperson told FCW in September that the move didn't represent new policy. However, privacy advocates and others are concerned about how social media aliases and information might be used to back adverse judgements against individuals caught up in the immigration system. There are also concerns about the constitutionality of the proposal.

"The expansion of record-keeping to include social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results would be a clear violation of the First and Fourth Amendments," wrote David Carr on behalf of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "We cannot welcome immigrants to our country while simultaneously withholding our most basic freedoms."

Carr added that the massive uptick in collection of "irrelevant information" would add to the "haystack" problem facing law enforcement and the intelligence community as they try to sift through data for information relevant to investigations and threat prevention.

Another issue is that individuals who come to the U.S. as trafficked sex workers aren't necessarily the authors of their social media profiles, said Clement Lee of the Urban Justice Center. She cited the case of a transgender woman who was exploited by a trafficker. The trafficker created unauthorized social media profiles to advertise sex services.

When the woman "eventually submits her naturalization application, the Department's new regulations give her little choice but to parrot the aliases her trafficker used for her in the application and during her interview, perpetuating and compounding the harm done to her by the trafficker," Lee explained.

The Internet Association, which represents Facebook, Twitter, Google and many other firms whose data would be included in the DHS proposal, urged DHS to issue a public statement clarifying several aspects of the proposal, including whether non-public media will be collected and how it will be obtained; whether social media data will be used to authenticate real-world identity; how long the information will be retained; and how DHS itself plans to verify information it collects.

At issue for Ken Wasch, president and CEO of the Software & Information Industry Association, is potential ambiguity in the proposal. He noted that it's not clear what kind of information will be collected and that the policy could be read to also support the collection of individual internet search histories.

The "lack of clarity of the current policy threatens to pose a chilling effect on the use of social media networks and online sharing," Wasch said. He also noted that social media information is not that hard to fabricate, and that "terrorists or other nefarious actors would be most likely to volunteer only social media information that is 'clean,' disclose information that is inauthentic, or even establish false accounts for the purpose of providing an alias."

Similar points were made in comments from the American Library Association, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Center for Data Innovation, the Information Technology Industry Council and other groups.

Comments on the proposal closed on Oct. 18.

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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