Appearing before a congressional panel on Tuesday, the Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly proposed requiring foreign travelers to the US to provide immigration officers with social media account log-ins.
Kelly faced questioning on the issue from Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.), who urged the department to “increase its efforts to dig into” social media activity of visa applicants.
The DHS chief concurred, stating that he was looking into “enhanced” screening, regardless of the current order blocking implantation of President Trump’s Muslim ban.
“If someone wants to come into our country” Kelly testified, “we want to say, for instance, what websites do you visit? Give us your passwords.”
Kelly went on to say that if travelers don’t want to provide their passwords, “then they don’t come.”
“If they truly want to come to America, they’ll cooperate,” he said. “If not, next in line.”
Kelly was careful to tell lawmakers that “these are things we’re thinking about,” and not a statement of official policy. If implemented, however, it would be a more intrusive form of a policy first initiated under the Obama administration.
At the end of December last year, President Obama ushered in new rules proposed by DHS to inquire with certain foreign travelers about their social media information. The program applied to individuals coming to the US under the Visa Waiver Program—visitors from mostly European nations.
The program did not involve requiring individuals to give up their personal passwords. It was also optional, although officials never clarified if refusing to provide the particular data would negatively impact approval of the application.
A coalition of civil rights groups including the ACLU, Access Now, and Demand Progress wrote a letter last August opposing the DHS proposal to collect social media information.
“A person’s online identifiers are gateways into an enormous amount of their online expression and associations, which can reflect highly sensitive information about that person’s opinions, beliefs, identity, and community,” the groups warned.
They added that “scrutiny of their sensitive or controversial online profiles would lead many visa-waiver applicants to self-censor or delete their accounts, with consequences for personal, business, and travel-related activity.”
It would also have consequences for global free speech considerations, including for US citizens, if other foreign countries retaliate with similar screening on travelers entering their borders.
Those concerns have not yet reached the either Rep. Higgins or DHS Secretary Kelly.
“We honestly have to…get more serious than we have been about how we look at people coming in the US,” Kelly said on Tuesday.
“Your answer is encouraging,” Higgins responded. “I hope that you would move forward with that as a mandatory part of a visa application to provide our own people with social media accounts and passwords.”