The US Department of Homeland Security is planning to collect social media information and search results of all immigrants entering the country, including green card holders and naturalised citizens. According to a new rule published by the DHS in the Federal Register last week, the agency plans to expand "the categories of records" collected to include "social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information and search results" as part of their "A-file" or Alien immigration file, BuzzFeed first reported.
It also plans to "update record source categories to include publicly available obtained from the internet... and information obtained and disclosed pursuant to information sharing agreements." The new provision is set to go into effect starting 18 October following a public comment period.
The new rule comes after the DHS announced new aviation security measures for all international flights into the US to avoid expanding the controversial laptop ban. These included "heightened screening" of all electronic devices and travellers, increasing security protocols around aircraft and within passenger areas, expanding canine screening and establishing more pre-clearance locations.
In May, the US government approved a stringent new questionnaire for US visa applicants that requests them to divulge five years worth of social media handles, email addresses and phone numbers along with all prior passport numbers, 15 years worth of address, employment and travel history, source of funding for their travel and information about their siblings, children, current and former spouses or civil or domestic partners.
However, the new rule, if applied, would go beyond potential immigrants and visitors to the US and would apply to those who are already permanent residents, have obtained a green card or gone through the naturalisation process. It could also potentially affect US citizens who have communicated with immigrants as well.
In a statement to CNET, Homeland Security said the rule "does not represent a new policy".
"DHS, in its law enforcement and immigration process capacity, has and continues to monitor publicly available social media to protect the homeland," the agency said. "In an effort to be transparent, to comply with existing regulations, and due to updates in the electronic immigration system, DHS decided to update its corresponding Privacy Act system of records."
Immigration experts and privacy groups have already voiced their concerns over the new proposed rule and questioned its effectiveness in terms of national security.
"This Privacy Act notice makes clear that the government intends to retain the social media information of people who have immigrated to this country, singling out a huge group of people to maintain files on what they say," Faiz Shakir, national political director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said in a statement. "This would undoubtedly have a chilling effect on the free speech that's expressed every day on social media.
"This collect-it-all approach is ineffective to protect national security and is one more example of the Trump administration's anti-immigrant agenda."