Reminder: Trump’s ‘far-reaching’ and ‘extreme’ vetting measures took root under Obama

Eric Lieberman, DCNF

The Trump administration is considering forcing foreigners to give up their cell phone contacts and social media passwords upon visiting the U.S., according to reports, measures that take root from the Obama administration.

Visitors from countries around the world could be subjected to more thorough security screenings, according to The Wall Street Journal, which calls the prospective steps “extreme” and “far-reaching.”

The Trump administration is reviewing the current vetting procedures to see if they are comprehensive enough for their liking.

“If there is any doubt about a person’s intentions coming to the United States, they should have to overcome — really and truly prove to our satisfaction — that they are coming for legitimate reasons,” said Gene Hamilton, senior counselor to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), reports WSJ.

The Obama administration must agree with such a sentiment to some extent since U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which falls under the scope of DHS, proposed a policy in August of 2016 that allows officials to request personal social media information.

The proposal allowed border officials to ask for personal online information like Twitter and Facebook details because “collecting social media data will enhance the existing investigative process and provide DHS greater clarity and visibility to possible nefarious activity,” according to the federal register filing.

A coalition of 28 different human rights and civil liberties organizations stressed significant concerns over authorities insisting that tourists and immigrants reveal their “online presence.”

“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,” an official coalition letter in response to the proposal reads.

“Cultural and linguistic barriers increase the risk that social media activity will be misconstrued,” the letter continues. “This disparate impact will affect not only travelers from visa-waiver program countries but also the Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans whose colleagues, family members, business associates and others in their social networks are exposed to immediate scrutiny or ongoing surveillance, or are improperly denied a visa waiver because of their online presence.” 

The plan eventually took effect in December, although it remained as an option and was not considered mandatory.

“The choice to hand over this information is technically voluntary,” Nathan White, senior legislative manager of Access Now, a digital rights advocacy group, told Politico, which first reported the story. “But the process to enter the U.S. is confusing, and it’s likely that most visitors will fill out the card completely rather than risk additional questions from intimidating, uniformed officers — the same officers who will decide which of your jokes are funny and which ones make you a security risk.”

There are two main changes of Trump’s potential, additional protocol, according to The WSJ: requests to inspect personal cell phones will be routine rather than targeted, and requests for social media profiles will include passwords so officials can see private posts as well as public.

While Trump is mulling over whether to expand such measures and make them required, there appears to be way more clamoring from organizations and media outlets compared to when the Obama administration implemented more mild, albeit similar policies.

The DHS announced in February of 2016 that it was updating its travel restrictions for the Visa Waiver Program by adding Libya, Somalia and Yemen to the list of “countries of concern.”

Perhaps the difference in attention stems from the fact that the Obama administration, as Politico put it, did so “quietly.”

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