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US Begins Collecting Social Media Information from Immigrants


Transportation Security Administration employees check passengers' identifications at a security checkpoint at LaGuardia Airport in New York, Thursday, May 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

United States officials now have permission to collect usernames and other social media information from all immigrants seeking to enter the country.

The new rule went into effect October 18 as an amendment to the U.S. Privacy Act. The Privacy Act establishes policies for how the government can collect and use information about individuals. The measure was enacted in 1974 after Richard M. Nixon resigned from the presidency.

The new amendment gives the Department of Homeland Security permission to collect “social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information and search results.”

The rule affects both permanent U.S. residents and naturalized citizens. The collected information becomes part of the person’s immigration records.

The amendment also gives the government rights to monitor information on relatives of immigrants and doctors who treat immigrants. It also includes monitoring of law enforcement officials involved in investigations of immigrants, and lawyers and others who help immigrants.

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. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
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. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

The amendment says the information can be gathered “from the internet, public records, public institutions, interviewees or commercial data providers.”

The Department of Homeland Security, DHS, has yet to announce specific collection or processing methods for personal information from social media.

Joanne Talbot is a spokesperson for DHS. In a statement to media last month, she said the amendment “does not represent a new policy.” She said the agency has already been able to “monitor publicly available social media to protect the homeland.”

Many privacy groups have criticized the collection of usernames and other social media information by U.S. border agents. They say such questioning fails to follow existing rules and violates the privacy rights of travelers.

In this file photo, a man holds up his iPhone during a rally in support of data privacy outside the Apple Store in San Francisco, Feb. 23, 2016.
In this file photo, a man holds up his iPhone during a rally in support of data privacy outside the Apple Store in San Francisco, Feb. 23, 2016.

Seamus Hughes is with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University in Washington. He says one problem is the huge amount of social media data the government will collect.

“Purely from a practical standpoint, I don’t see how DHS has the resources to implement this,” he said on Twitter.

U.S. officials have defended information gathering as a way to prevent possibly dangerous people from entering the country. Some experts say there is evidence the information can be helpful to the government if it is used in the right way.

Major General Charles J. Dunlap Jr. is head of the Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

“I can’t think of any situations where this monitoring and record-collection has been used in an abusive way,” Dunlap said. However, he added that the program needs to be closely monitored and any abuses quickly investigated and fixed.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

Paul Ross reported this story for Student Union. Bryan Lynn adapted his report for VOA Learning English. His story has information from the U.S. Federal Register. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

handlen. a nickname

aliasn. another name a person sometimes uses

resident – n. someone who lives in an area for some length of time

monitorv. to watch, observe or check over something

institutionn. an established organization

commercial adj. related to the buying and selling of goods and services

practicaladj. relating to what is real rather than what is possible or imagined

implementv. to begin something or make it active

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