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Groups Oppose Social Media Password Collection at US Border


Travelers pass through U.S. Customs and Immigration after using the Cross Border Xpress pedestrian bridge between San Diego and the Tijuana airport on the facility's opening day in Otay Mesa, California, Dec. 9, 2015.

Travelers pass through U.S. Customs and Immigration after using the Cross Border Xpress pedestrian bridge between San Diego and the Tijuana airport on the facility's opening day in Otay Mesa, California, Dec. 9, 2015.

Privacy groups have raised concerns about a possible U.S. policy to ask visitors to provide social media account information and passwords at the border.

Such border checks do not follow existing legal rules and violate the privacy rights of travelers, the groups say.

The head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, John Kelly, recently spoke on the issue during a hearing in the U.S. House. He said U.S. officials were considering a new policy to examine social media data of U.S. visitors from certain countries.

“If they come in, we want to say, for instance, which websites do you visit, and give us your passwords. We want to get on their social media, with passwords – what do you do, what do you say? If they don’t want to cooperate, then they don’t come in.”

Retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly testifies during the Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on his confirmation to be Secretary of Homeland Security in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly testifies during the Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on his confirmation to be Secretary of Homeland Security in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Kelly said the proposed policy is one of many being considered to prevent potentially dangerous people from entering the U.S. He said some people could also be asked to provide social media details during the application process before visiting America.

Emma Llanso is director of the Free Expression Project at the not-for-profit Center for Democracy & Technology. She says she was shocked to hear the government proposal was being considered.

“The idea of conditioning travel to the U.S. on actually providing - not just information about your social media use - but actually your passwords and the ability for customs agents to review years worth of private e-mails or other communications that have nothing to do with your admissibility into the country, was just a really concerning precedent.”

President Donald Trump has called for stronger vetting procedures to keep out dangerous individuals and terrorists.

Electronic device search in place

A U.S. policy to allow border agents to search electronic devices was actually started by the previous administration of Barack Obama. It was put in place by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, which is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security.

In this file photo, a passenger talks on the phone as American Airlines jets sit parked at their gates at Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport, Jan. 25, 2016.

In this file photo, a passenger talks on the phone as American Airlines jets sit parked at their gates at Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport, Jan. 25, 2016.

According to the CBP, the number of electronic media searches greatly increased in 2016 – Obama’s last year in office. They went from 4,764 in 2015 to 23,877 a year later, the agency said.

A senior Customs and Border Protection official told the Associated Press there has been no change in that policy under the Trump administration. The official added that despite the increase, the number of searches amounts to less than one-hundredth of 1 percent of all international arrivals to the U.S.

But some groups are still concerned with the rise in device searches at U.S. borders. Esha Bhandari is an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union or ACLU. She says the ACLU is currently seeking answers on why this is still going on for foreign visitors, as well as some American citizens too.

“The big concern here is more and more numbers of Americans and foreign visitors to the U.S. travel with smart devices that contain almost their entire lives on those devices - financial information, health information and sensitive personal communications.”

Social media information for visa waiver program

Some foreign visitors who frequently come to the U.S. are asked to provide social media information with their applications. These individuals who regularly visit the U.S. for business or tourism purposes are allowed to stay for up to 90 days without a visa.

An Apple employee instructs a journalist on the use of the fingerprint scanner technology built into the company's iPhone 5S during a media event in Beijing, China.

An Apple employee instructs a journalist on the use of the fingerprint scanner technology built into the company's iPhone 5S during a media event in Beijing, China.

The users of this system, called the Visa Waiver Program, are asked to list social media services they use and provide user names, but not passwords.

U.S. officials recently announced plans to also add long-term Chinese visa holders to the list of applicants asked to voluntarily provide social media account information.

Emma Llanso said even though providing this information is not mandatory – either at the border or on an application beforehand – it still puts great pressure on people to comply.

“You're being asked these questions and you think, I had better fill out this form as completely as possible, because I don't want to give customs officials any excuse or reason to reject my application.”

The ACLU’s Esha Bhandari says she fears changes in U.S. policies would cause other nations to also put in place new requirements regarding personal data collection.

A man holds up his iPhone during a rally in support of data privacy outside the Apple store, Feb. 23, 2016, in San Francisco.

A man holds up his iPhone during a rally in support of data privacy outside the Apple store, Feb. 23, 2016, in San Francisco.

“If sharing social media information becomes a norm for international travel, obviously that's going to affect what people feel free to say online. The Internet has really developed as a forum where people are free to speak out. It's an amazing forum, and a very democratizing forum, and this trend risks turning it into a largely monitored space.”

Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, has questioned the legality of government searches of devices and social media. He recently wrote a letter to Kelly expressing opposition to any future policies for visitors to provide social media passwords.

Wyden is also proposing legislation that would require border agents to get a warrant to search personal devices at the border. It would also bar law enforcement from seeking social media account information and passwords.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn reported this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Do you think governments are justified in asking foreign visitors to provide social media information and passwords at the border? Write to us in the Comments section, and visit our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

precedentn. something that happens and can be used as an example or rule to be followed in the future

vetv. investigate someone’s background thoroughly

mandatoryadj. required because of a law or rule

complyv. do what you have been asked or ordered to do

monitorv. watch something very carefully over time

warrantn. document issued by a court that gives police the authority to do something

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