Privacy SOS

Fight back against the Trump administration’s attacks on freedom of speech and association

The Trump administration has taken the first official step towards fulfilling its promise to conduct “extreme vetting” of visitors and immigrants. On March 30, the State Department released a proposal outlining its plan to require visa applicants to disclose all the social media identifiers, email addresses, and phone numbers they have used in the past five years. (Think about that for a second; can you remember every phone number you’ve used since 2013?)

We have until May 29 to comment on the proposals, and we must stop them.

These questions were first introduced to the visa application back in 2016, but on a “voluntary” basis, meaning visitors and immigrants were not required to fill out those sections of the documentation required for obtaining visas. In May 2017, the State Department said of the soon-coming mandatory data collection that the information would only be scrutinized when people “have been determined to warrant additional scrutiny in connection with terrorism or other national security-related visa ineligibilities.” Given the federal government’s actions in the post-9/11 era, and the Trump administration’s blatant Islamophobia, it’s likely that this means the “extreme vetting” will target primarily Arabs, Muslims, and people perceived to be Arab or Muslim. That’s why advocates are calling the plan the Digital Muslim Ban. As the ACLU’s Hina Shamsi said, “There is a real risk that social media vetting will unfairly target immigrants and travelers from Muslim-majority countries for discriminatory visa denials, without doing anything to protect national security.”

But it’s not just foreign nationals who will be harmed by the new surveillance procedures, if they are enacted. Legal permanent residents and US citizens who are associated with those visa applicants are also likely to face increased surveillance. After sucking up all of this data, the State Department will then pass it on to other agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, which routinely shares information with state and local police departments. The Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, a component agency of DHS, will subsequently use that information to support its Visa Lifecycle Vetting plan (the new name for “Extreme Vetting”). The information could allow ICE to engage in “continuous vetting” of visa holders, including students and people in the United States for work.

We’re talking about tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of records. No agency, no matter how bloated, could possibly analyze all of that information without the aid of automated systems. So how are the State Department and ICE supposed to sort through all of this information? Immigration and data-privacy experts believe the government will use algorithms to draw conclusions about its surveillance targets. “It’s inevitable that if all this information is being collected, there’s some sort of algorithmic program that’s likely to be built to crunch it,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program.

ICE’s plans from 2017 indicate what the future may hold: back then, the agency said its scans for national security risks were also supposed to detect things like the “probability of becoming a positively contributing member of a society.” As a group of technologists pointed out in a protest letter to the government last year, it’s highly unlikely that any automated system—let alone a human being—could correctly and objectively define and code for such characteristics. It’s much more likely that the algorithms will be colored by the biases of their creators, which in this case means Trump administration appointees.

In the wake of criticisms, ICE spokeswoman Carissa Cutrell says the agency’s new proposal will be “very different” from the “extreme vetting” by algorithm system it announced last summer, emphasizing that the new $100 million contract will focus on “labor, not technology.” She also said that the agency would not conduct continuous vetting, to monitor the speech of visa holders and immigrants on an ongoing basis. Whether or not that’s true, concerns about ICE’s surveillance will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and association, as many people—among them visitors, immigrants, and their citizen friends, families, and associates—may think twice before voicing their opinions out of fear that their words will be collected, potentially misinterpreted, and used against them. After all, it doesn’t matter if analysis of these records is done by a computer or a human being; it is likely to be discriminatory, and shouldn’t happen either way.

Meanwhile, DHS is facing criticism over another plan with First Amendment implications: the compilation of an enormous database of journalists, bloggers, and online influencers. The agency is currently searching for a contractor to scour through over 290,000 different news outlets and social media pages to “identify any and all media coverage related to the Department of Homeland Security or a particular event.” Freedom House, which analyzes the status of the press freedoms, announced that “global media freedom has reached its lowest level in the past 13 years,” citing Trump’s candidacy and presidency as significant causes of the plunge. DHS’ database of journalists and media influencers is unlikely to lift that sinking ship. It’s not clear what DHS plans to do with all that information, and its dismissive response to critics doesn’t help.

The State Department and DHS’ new policies and plans pose serious risks to individual and collective liberties. To stop the Trump administration’s dangerous attacks on freedom of speech and association, exercise your freedom of speech now by leaving a comment about the State Department’s proposals for social media surveillance of immigrant visa applicants and nonimmigrant visa applicants before May 29, 2018. Make your voice heard!

This blog post was written by ACLU of Massachusetts intern Iqra Asghar.

© 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts.