US officers to create fake social media accounts to monitor immigrants

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officers are now permitted to create fake social media accounts to monitor immigrants seeking visas, green cards, and citizenship.

On Friday, the Department of Homeland Security posted online an updated policy review of potential privacy issues that effectively reverses a previous ban on enforcement officers creating fictitious profiles.

False accounts and identities will make it easier for investigators to find potential evidence of fraud or to identify security concerns as they consider whether to allow someone entry into the U.S., according to a USCIS statement explaining the change.

In June, steps were taken by the State Department requiring visa applicants to provide their social media usernames.

The statement by USCIS said that it does not proactively monitor social media accounts. The agency will use fake accounts only “to access social media content that is publicly available to all users of the social media platform.” Employees will respect users’ privacy settings and won’t “friend” or “follow” users.

“We use social media information to investigate an existing request for immigration benefits, as part of our background and security check process,” the statement stated.

Officers are not permitted to interact with users on the social media sites and can only passively review information, according to the DHS document.

It is worth noting that, although some social media activity can be viewed without an account, many platforms limit access without one.

Bipartisan support after San Bernardino

Bipartisan support for increased investigative attention to social media was initiated by the 2015 San Bernardino attack, which resulted in the deaths of 14 people.

In that case, shooter Syed Rizwan Farook’s wife Tashfeen Malik was in the U.S. on a fiancée visa — a process that did not involve a social media check. The day after the attack, a Facebook post was found on a page maintained by Malik, but under an alias, pledging her and Farook’s allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Authorities reported that Malik and Farook exchanged messages about jihad and martyrdom online before they were married and while she was living in Pakistan. The two ultimately were killed in a gun battle with police.

There is uncertainty about how the USCIS policy change will work in practice, given terms of use for social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook that prohibit impersonation–pretending to be someone else. Twitter and Facebook recently closed multiple accounts reportedly used by China’s government for draconian information operations.

“It is against our policies to use fake personae and to use Twitter data for persistent surveillance of individuals,” a statement said that was issued by the social media giant. “We look forward to understanding USCIS’s proposed practices to determine whether they are consistent with our terms of service.”

Dave Maass, a senior investigative researcher for Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties advocacy group, said the new policy “undermines our trust in social media companies and our ability to communicate and organize and stay in touch with people.”

He added: “It can’t be this double standard where police can do it, but members of the general public can’t.”

Retired FBI agent Mike German, who is a fellow in the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security program, said it’s important for strong guidelines to be in place and for lawmakers to ensure there are no abuses.

“It’s easy to conjure up a use where the use is appropriate and entirely necessary, but also where it could be abused,” he said. “It should only be used in cases where absolutely necessary.”

In January 2017, former Homeland Security Department Secretary Jeh Johnson issued a privacy impact update giving authority to USCIS to “conduct law enforcement activities including but not limited to accessing internet and publicly available social media content using a fictitious account or identity.” But a privacy impact assessment was required to be completed first.

 

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Victor Rantala

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