Soon foreign visitors entering the US may have to hand over their smartphone and share social media passwords with border officials.
Would you be happy to hand over your smartphone along with the passwords to your social media accounts for forensic inspection by customs agents upon entering a country? A high majority of us would bristle at such a request and feel violated, with good reason.
This hypothetical intrusion could become a reality for visitors to America – and sooner rather than later. More alarmingly, should these ‘extreme vetting’ measures mooted in a speech by John Kelly US Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) earlier this year, be approved other countries are likely to follow suit.
In February, Kelly, a former Marine Corps general appointed by Donald Trump last December, told Congress that his department would be considering forcing refugees and visa applicants from seven Muslim-majority countries to hand over their devices and reveal login information for Facebook, Twitter, and so on, as part of security screening. Noncompliant travellers will be refused entry, he warned.
“It applies under certain circumstances, to individuals who may be involved in on the payroll of terrorist organisations,” he explained. “We want to get on their social media, with passwords – what do you do, what do you say? How are you living, who’s sending you money? We can follow the money, so to speak. If they don’t want to cooperate, then you don’t come in.”
In April this stance was hardened, when Gene Hamilton, a senior counsellor to the DHS, indicated in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that visitors to the US from the 38 countries that participate in the visa waiver programme, including the UK, might also be scrutinised at the border. Hamilton said: “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.”
Interestingly, obtaining visitors’ passwords was contemplated in private by the DHS when President Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, was in office. The policy was rejected in 2011, a former senior official in the department revealed a couple of years ago. By making a public announcement, Secretary Kelly has taken a different approach and alarmed privacy lawyers and human rights organisations.
Cynthia Wong, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), says that if the proposal is ratified it would represent “a sweeping threat to human rights”. She tells Raconteur: “Social media accounts are the keys to our digital lives. Demanding passwords would grant access to potentially years’ worth of private communications or membership in private groups. Such an intrusion could expose our most private thoughts, relationships, and political views, as well as information on our purchase histories, health information, and sexual orientation.
“This is an enormous intrusion on privacy and will have a chilling effect on speech and association. People will feel reluctant to join controversial online groups or express unpopular opinions if it may affect their chances of obtaining a visa.
“The proposal could also potentially give access to far more information than what is in our Facebook account. Many websites and mobile applications now allow you to use your Facebook, Google, or Twitter account to log in to their services. Secretary Kelly has given no explanation of what would restrain the government from using credentials to access other kinds of accounts, nor prevent the government from repeatedly checking accounts, or even modifying settings or manipulating our digital lives with this information.”
San Francisco-based Wong believes that the proposal also raises cyber security concerns. “The first rule of online security is: ‘Don’t share your password.’ Even the Federal Bureau of Investigation teaches this in its digital security curriculum that it provides for primary school students,” she notes.
“Implementing Kelly’s proposal would require the creation of a database of social media accounts, passwords, and contact lists. Such a database would become an irresistible target for cyber criminals and foreign intelligence agencies, who would attempt to gain access to it. Given the history of serious data breaches of US systems in recent years, how confident can we be that this data would be kept secure?”
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