New Republican Bill Calls for Israeli-Style Spying on Social Media of All U.S. Visa Applicants


Freshman Republican Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana introduced legislation on February 16 requiring the Department of Homeland Security to monitor the social media activities of all visa applicants including their Facebook and Twitter accounts. The bill explicitly mandates DHS agents to interrogate children as young as 11 years old.

The legislation is titled the Visa Investigation and Social Media Act of 2017 and is the first bill submitted by the new congressman. The language, which was reviewed by AlterNet, states that no visa applicant will be admitted “unless a background check to determine whether or not the alien is a national security threat or is otherwise ineligible for such visa or admission is completed.”

According to the text of the bill, this background check should include “view of the alien’s publicly available interactions on and posting of material to the Internet (including social media services).” In a press statement, Banks specified that social media subject to such surveillance includes “public tweets, YouTube videos, Facebook photos and posts.”

However, the bill does not state the specific criteria for denying entry to visitors. The vague language underlining Banks' proposal leaves open the possibility that DHS could act based on its own arbitary judgments about social media postings. It also potentially expands the Trump administration's currently frozen travel ban, which scrutinized foreign entrants based on their religion and national background, into the realm of political speech.

The ground rules laid out by Banks requires an in-person interview for visitors as young as 11 years old. For children 10 and younger, “The Secretary may waive such requirement,” the language states. However, it was not clear how an individual would go about attaining such a waiver, indicating that the default would be to interrogate everyone. Banks’ office did not immediately respond to a request for clarification.

The legislation goes on to impose the sweeping and prohibitive requirement that “No document submitted in support of a petition or application for a non-immigrant or immigrant visa may be accepted by a consular officer if such document contains information in a foreign language, unless such document is accompanied by a full English translation.”

Banks' bill outlines a procedure that is remarkably similar to the kind employed by Israel's Shin Bet general security services at Ben Gurion International Airport and other points of entry along Israeli-controlled frontiers. Foreign visitors, particulary those of Arab descent or suspected of pro-Palestinian sympathies, are routinely forced to provide agents with access to their social media and email accounts. In 2013, then-Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein confirmed the practice and admitted it was used to deny entry to visitors on explicitly political grounds.

Gary Spedding, a British activist with ties to grassroots Palestinian human rights groups like the Holy Land Trust, was denied entry to Israel in 2014 on the basis of his Facebook and Twitter posts. Israeli authorities provided no explanation beyond the vague suggestion that Spedding advocated online against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Origins under Obama

Ryan Costello, a policy fellow at the National Iranian American Council, told AlterNet, “This is in line with the knee-jerk reaction that Trump has been pushing. This seems more in line with keeping people out by being overly burdensome. I’m certainly concerned about this being used to discriminate against individuals from Muslim-majority countries, and it’s in line with Trump’s proposals to do just that.”

Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel for the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told AlterNet that the bill, if passed, would chill speech in the United States as well. “This would have a self-censoring effect,” she said. “If you have a friend or family member who is coming to visit, or you want to collaborate with colleagues, you might think, If I interact with them, my social media will be scrutinized."

The proposed legislation has precedent in Obama-era policies. In the aftermath of the San Bernardino, California mass shooting, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress called for the intensified surveillance of social media accounts belonging to refugees and visa applicants. In response, DHS began expanding its powers to surveil this information, by unrolling a series of pilot programs, one of which “screens the social media accounts of applicants for the so-called fiancé visa,” according to the New York Times.

In December 2016, the U.S. government began requesting that travelers from countries on the visa waiver program provide their social media accounts, including Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube. While the invitation to “enter information associated with your online presence” is billed as “optional,” critics warned that individuals may feel pressure to hand over personal information, or simply be confused by the already cumbersome process of entering the United States.

In a joint statement released in August 2016, after DHS first proposed the change, civil liberties groups warned that “The scale and scope of this program would lead to a significant expansion of intelligence activity.” They continued, “The risk of discrimination based on analysis of social media content and connections is great and will fall hardest on Arab and Muslim communities, whose usernames, posts, contacts, and social networks will be exposed to intense scrutiny.”

“Our concern at the time, was that it would quickly transform into something much broader,” Levinson-Waldman underscored. “We’re seeing that now.”

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