US Wants To Look At Social Media Accounts Of Visa Applicants For Tougher Screening

The US wants to look at social media accounts, emails and phone numbers of visa applicants to perform tougher immigration screening proposed by the Trump administration.

Washington: As President Donald Trump seeks intense scrutiny of those who want to enter the country, the US Department of State proposed tougher questioning of visa applicants who it believes need an extra inquiry, according to a government document published on Thursday.

There would be a set of new questions to visa applicants, “who have been determined to warrant additional scrutiny in connection with terrorism or other national security-related visa ineligibilities,” the State Department said in a notice to the Federal Register.

The additional criteria would include questions relating to social media accounts and apply to 65,000 people per year or about 0.5 percent of visa applicants worldwide, the State Department estimated. However, it did not target nationals of certain countries like they did earlier, such as the travel ban.

The applicants identified would be asked to give all prior passport numbers, five years’ worth of social media handles, email addresses and phone numbers as well as 15 years of biographical information when applying for a US visa. However, the consular officials will not ask for user passwords for social media accounts, it stated.

If approved, the new norms would mark the first tangible step towards more stringent vetting the federal agencies were asked to apply toward travellers from countries; Trump deemed a threat to the United States in an executive order issued in January and again in March.

Though the federal courts halted parts of travel order including a temporary ban on travel from several Muslim majority countries, the review of vetting procedures detailed in an accompanying memorandum remains in place.

The proposed changes must undergo a public review period before being approved or denied by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) by May 18.

Meanwhile, immigration lawyers and advocates expressed apprehensions that asking for detailed biographical information of 15 years and expecting applicants to remember all their social media handles will make the innocent visa applicants who do not remember all the information asked for scapegoats.

They also doubt if such a deep and long screening can achieve its intended goal of identifying potential terrorists. Former senior officials belonging to Homeland Security also feel that monitoring terrorist organisations is more an effective method.

The experiment of reviewing social media with automation proved flawed and required humans to ensure accuracy, they said.

Applicants may not necessarily be denied a visa if they fail to provide all the information if it is determined they can provide a “credible explanation,” the notice said.

In order to tighten vetting of US visa applicants, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in March cable introduced similar measures to American Consular officers that outlined question that officers now need to ask. However, it was withdrawn in just a few days, as OMB had not approved those specific questions.

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