Nearly every person who applies for a U.S. visa will now have to share information about their social media accounts with the U.S. State Department for screening.
The change, which was outlined in March 2018 and took effect on May 31, 2019, comes as an expansion of the Trump administration’s enhanced screening of potential immigrants and visitors.
In addition to outlining their social media usernames on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube from the previous five years—which would give the government access to photos, previously visited locations, and other data regularly shared on social platforms—the department’s updated U.S. visa application form will now ask applicants to disclose the personal telephone numbers and email addresses they may have used during that same period. The form will also inquire about an applicant’s international travel and deportation status, as well as whether any family members have been involved in terrorist activities. (Application forms will include the option to indicate that an individual does not use social media, if that is the case. However, the department notes that if applicants lie or withhold information regarding their use of social media, they could face unspecified “serious immigration consequences” as a result.)
“National security is our top priority when adjudicating visa applications, and every prospective traveler and immigrant to the United States undergoes extensive security screening,” a department official said in a statement. “We are constantly working to find mechanisms to improve our screening processes to protect U.S. citizens, while supporting legitimate travel to the United States.”
According to the New York Times, the U.S. State Department began to ask visa applicants to submit their social media information—voluntarily—during the Obama administration. In the past, social media, email, and phone number histories had only been sought from applicants who were identified for extra screening, such as individuals who’d traveled to areas controlled by terrorist organizations. (An estimated 65,000 applicants per year fell into that category.)
The updated rules from the Trump administration apply to virtually all applicants for immigrant and nonimmigrant visas to the United States. The updates follow pushback from privacy advocates and human rights organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which raised concerns that “social media vetting” pilot programs led by the Department of Homeland Security have relied on flawed analysis methods and were “ripe for discrimination and profiling.”
The surveillance-oriented changes are expected to affect about 15 million noncitizens who apply for U.S. visas each year, including those who want to enter the country for business or education. Only applicants for distinct diplomatic and official visa types are exempted from the requirements. It’s yet to be seen how the new rules will affect tourism at large to the United States.
The Associated Press contributed reporting.