New US rule to demand social media details from visa applicants

New US rule will require visa applicants to submit their social media history. (File photo)

The US will require nearly all visa applicants to the country to submit five year’s worth of social media history, email addresses and phone numbers, threatening “serious immigration consequences” for those who try to mask such private information.

“This will be a vital tool to screen out terrorists, public safety threats, and other dangerous individuals from gaining immigration benefits and setting foot on US soil,” said a US State Department official as quoted in a Friday report by Washington-based news outlet The Hill.

“This is a critical step forward in establishing enhanced vetting of foreign nationals seeking entry into the United States," the official added, further pointing out that the accounts would be worked into a full background check against terror watch lists and that visa applications would eventually be require to submit an even more complete travel history.

The development came despite objections raised against the measure by local rights groups which have described the policy as unfair to travelers, insisting that it puts them at the mercy of government authorities who can easily misinterpret online interactions.The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) first objected to the measure last year after it was proposed, emphasizing that such misunderstandings could be deliberate, providing excuses to turn away “undesirables.” It further underlined that the rule would cause people to self-censor themselves online.

“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,” said a statement issued by ACLU’s director of the National Security Project, Hina Shamsi.

When proposed last year, authorities estimated the proposal would affect 14.7 million people annually.Certain diplomatic and official visa applicants will be exempt from the harsh new measures.

However, people travelling to the US to work or to study will have to hand over their information. They will also be asked if family members have been involved in “terrorist activities.”

"We are constantly working to find mechanisms to improve our screening processes to protect US citizens, while supporting legitimate travel to the United States," the State Department also said as cited in the report.

According to the report, both temporary visitors and those seeking permanent residence are required to fill out the new forms, which include drop-down menus that currently list only the “major” social media platforms.The administration of US President Donald Trump first proposed the rules in March 2018 after he made cracking down on immigration a key pledge of his election campaign in 2016. He has also called for "extreme vetting" of immigrants before and during his presidency.

Meanwhile, tourism to the US has drastically declined since then, particularly among visitors from the Middle East and Africa, which remain the key target of Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban.”