In light of recent news regarding data breaches affecting Facebook users, data-mining apps are not the only entities monitoring social media use these days.

Last fall, the Department of Homeland Security expanded its digital monitoring policy in the Federal Register to include immigrant “social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results”.  While DHS describes the announcement as a policy clarification rather than a policy change, the news escalates the debate concerning government use of social media and the tension between privacy rights, free speech, and public safety. Concurrently, DHS issued broader access to public-source data in concert with the intelligence community.  Whereas these 2017 adoptions indicate recent change, DHS has instituted new practices in the digital domain over the last two decades. For instance, the Department began to evaluate social media more closely in the aftermath of the 2015 San Bernardino mass shooting by two attackers who had exchanged private online messages, and added optional requests for social media use under the Visa Waiver Program in late 2016.

Below are a few examples of how US government digital access and monitoring of social media might impact your immigration path as a visa holder, green card holder, or naturalized citizen:

  1. Although the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) has monitored public social media use since 2012, the agency’s 2017 announcement establishes greater ability to weigh your public social media use as a factor in determining your immigration benefits. This does not permit USCIS to search your social media account or internet history, but the agency is now collecting and storing records of your social media use available in the public domain.
  2. This week, US Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) denied allegations that the agency is mining Facebook accounts to conduct administrative arrests. In a press response, ICE reiterated that the agency may only search publically available social media content, similar to searches by other law enforcement agencies.
  3. Under a 2009 directive, US Customs & Border Protection (CBP) Officers have the ability to search electronic devices at ports of entry and within 100 miles of the border without a warrant. While these searches are rare, CBP can review content saved on devices, but cannot search cloud data under US Department of Justice guidance.
  4. In October, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) implemented new security measures that require airport travelers to place devices larger than cell phones, and beyond the traditional laptop, in separate bins for X-ray screening. TSA Pre✓® travelers are excluded from these heightened searches.
  5. Last June, the US Department of State developed new questions for US visa applicants regarding social media use to heighten screening of travelers who might pose national security risks. The questions specifically requests visa applicants to provide all social media platforms and handles utilized over the last five years.