The Guardian view on social media surveillance: Uncle Sam isn’t planning to friend you

Immigration passport control at San Francisco airport

Immigration passport control at San Francisco airport
Immigration passport control at San Francisco airport. ‘The ambition is frightening even if the execution is unlikely to be nearly as effective as it might be.’ Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The appetite of the US national security apparatus for personal information appears insatiable. In December, the Obama administration began asking some foreign visitors for their social media account names. Civil liberties campaigners warned of the dangers then. Under President Trump that effort has been extended and enlarged so that now visa applicants can be asked to supply all of the social media identities they have used over the past five years. It is claimed that they will not be denied entry simply on the basis of what they might have said online four years ago in a conversation supposedly shared only among friends. But it is easy to see how such powers may be expanded, and how chilling an effect they already have.

The demand for social media identities may not even be the most intrusive and authoritarian of the questions asked on the new visa form. Nor should it be confused with reports that American border officials may have started to demand the passwords as well as the social media identities of some travellers. The new demands are made long before the border is reached. Prospective travellers singled out for this treatment can also be asked for a list of all the countries they have visited in the last 15 years, and an account of how each trip was funded. As well as that, 15 years of address and employment history, the names and dates of birth of all siblings, children, and all the phone numbers and email addresses they have had for the last five years.

It is worth considering what these demands tell us about the amount and quality of information already available to the surveillance state: phone numbers and email addresses are useless without the ability to access records of their use, which the US authorities clearly hope or expect to obtain if they wish. And each person identified in this way as a contact of the visa applicant can become the focus of a newly expanded enquiry into their connections, and so on until a whole social network has been mapped. The ambition is frightening even if the execution is unlikely to be nearly as effective as it might be.

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The plan appears to have grown out of Donald Trump’s plan for a Muslim travel ban, which is stalled in the courts because it is so clearly discriminatory. After the executive order first hit trouble, the homeland security secretary told Congress that if people from the relevant nations wanted to enter the US, “We want to get on their social media, with passwords … If they don’t want to cooperate, then you don’t come in.”

The present powers are purely discretionary and could in theory be aimed at anyone, but the suspicion is inevitably that they will be directed primarily at Muslim travellers. That is not the only reason to find them obnoxious. Their application will be arbitrary and their effect will be to allow for the arbitrary deportation of many of those who fill out the form, since even entirely honest candidates are likely to make a mistake when asked for information so detailed and so likely to be forgotten over time. Obviously the dishonest or genuinely malevolent applicant will fail to mention the social media identities he uses for jihadi operations, just as no applicant now admits that they have advocated the overthrow by force of the US government.

[Source”cnbc”]