The United States government on Friday updated visa application forms to require nearly all applicants to provide their social media usernames, email addresses, and phone numbers for the past five years. The requirement to provide the additional information is in line with the Donald Trump administration’s decision to ensure more stringent screening of potential immigrants and visitors to the United States.
Who is impacted
The new policy will affect roughly 15 million US visa applicants around the world every year. More than a million non-immigrant and immigrant US visas are given to Indians every year. Government officials and diplomats are exempt from providing the additional information.
In 2018, 28,073 Indians were issued American immigrant visas, the vast majority of which passed through the “family preference” process. Since 2009, the biggest jump in the number of Indian immigrants to the US — almost 20% — was seen during 2014-2015. But after reaching a peak of 31,360 in 2016, the numbers of immigrant visas issued to Indians dropped in 2017.
In 2018, the US issued 10,06,802 nonimmigrant visas to Indians, the third largest national group behind the Chinese and Mexicans, and amounting to a little over 11% of total nonimmigrant visa issuances.
How it will work
The change affects the nonimmigrant visa online application form (DS-160), the paper back-up nonimmigrant visa application (DS-156), and the online immigrant visa application form (DS-260).
In the drop-down menu on the Consular Electronic Application Center (CEAC) site, applicants will be expected to choose from 20 online platforms, including Facebook, Flickr, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, Myspace, Pinterest, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, Vine and YouTube, and provide their usernames on the platforms. Among the social media platforms based outside the United States on the list are Tencent Weibo, Twoo, and Youku.
Why the change
“National security is our top priority when adjudicating visa applications, and every prospective traveler and immigrant to the United States undergoes extensive security screening,” the State Department said in a statement. “We are constantly working to find mechanisms to improve our screening processes to protect US citizens, while supporting legitimate travel to the United States.”
The statement clarified that “consular officers will not request user passwords”, and that “the information will be used, as all information provided during a visa interview and on the visa application, to determine if the applicant is eligible for a visa under existing US law”. “Collecting this additional information from visa applicants will strengthen our process for vetting applicants and confirming their identity,” the State Department said.
Policy under Obama
The new requirement marks a shift away from the voluntary disclosure of social media profile information under the Barack Obama administration. The new mandatory policy announced by the Trump administration also monitors those already in the US, such as green card holders.
In early 2014, the Obama administration had prohibited social media profile evaluations during visa application processes. Later that year, the policy was loosened, but social media checks were not standard practice until a shooting in California in 2015.
The San Bernardino shooting — in which 14 people were killed and 22 others were seriously wounded in a terror attack in California — involved attackers who had undergone visa screening. News reports at the time said that the shooter, Rizwan Farook, had been posting violent messages under a pseudonym online.
In the aftermath of the shooting, many Democrats also voiced approval of social media surveillance methods. President Obama too called upon technology companies to combat terrorist activities.
By the end of 2015, the Department of Homeland Security began analysing social media accounts during immigration applications regularly.
Changes under Trump
In a series of executive orders and memos that began a week after his inauguration, President Trump called for “enhanced vetting protocols and procedures of visas and other immigration benefits” to mitigate against terror threats. In October 2017, the Department of Homeland Security expanded its immigration records to include “social media handles and aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results” on the same day that the controversial travel ban on citizens of seven countries went into effect.
According to the memo, “publicly available information obtained from the Internet, public records, public institutions, interviewees, commercial data providers” would provide the information at the time.
The State Department first announced the mandatory collection of social media accounts in March 2018. It stated this week that this change was a result of a Presidential memo from 2017 directing the State Department and other agencies to improve screening and vetting.
Elsewhere in the world
In 2015, Indians faced further scrutiny in Schengen visas, after it was made mandatory to provide biometric data through fingerprints and a digital photo. That requirement was already in place in the US and Britain. Currently, the UK and Canada — popular destinations for Indian visitors and immigrants — do not have any policy of collecting social media information form visa applicants.
Why some are concerned
Social media is an intricate map of its users’ contacts, associations, habits and preferences. Full information on accounts will give the US government access to a visa applicant’s pictures, locations, birthdays, anniversaries, friendships, relationships, and a whole trove of personal data that is commonly shared on social media, but which many may not like to share with agencies of state.
Critics say the sweeping surveillance potential of the new regulations could discourage a wide range of visa applicants. “Research shows that this kind of monitoring has chilling effects, meaning that people are less likely to speak freely and connect with each other in online communities that are now essential to modern life,” Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, was quoted as saying in a report in The New York Times.