social media user at the airport (ShutterStock image)

DHS eyes social media as lever for ‘extreme vetting’

Citizens from the countries named in President Donald Trump’s recent executive order restricting travel to the U.S.  may have their browser histories, telephone contacts and social media use collected by the Department of Homeland Security in an effort to supplement the sometimes spotty or even non-existent data on travelers available from their home countries.

Those details emerged as DHS stepped up to try to calm nerves about President Donald Trump's Jan. 27 Executive Order closing down for 90 days travel to the U.S. by citizens of  Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen and to make the case that the rollout of the policy was more orderly than it looked on television news.

In a Jan. 31 press conference, DHS Secretary Gen. John Kelly, Acting Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection Kevin McAleenan, newly named Acting Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Thomas Homan and Acting Under Secretary of DHS Intelligence and Analysis David Glawe explained how the order was implemented once the president issued it.

"This is not travel ban," said Kelly of the executive order. "It's a temporary pause that allows us to better review the existing refugee and visa vetting," he said. The pause, said Kelly, will allow DHS to find the immigration system's strengths and weaknesses and encourage U.S. foreign partners to get on top of their collection of security data that allows travel to the U.S.

Kelly said DHS is considering how to construct a way to get a more complete picture of online activities of immigrants from trouble spots. A more thorough and in-depth accounting of the websites people have been visiting, their social media habits and even telephone contacts might be looked at as part of the process, he said.

The process, he added, is aimed at supplementing the sometimes spotty or even non-existent data gathering capabilities of law enforcement in some of the seven countries listed in the order.

The concern is that there are "a number of countries on the planet that don't have that kind of records keeping, police work, that kind of thing" that might alert U.S. authorities that a traveler constitutes a danger to the U.S., Kelly said. The seven countries covered by the executive order, "right now, for the most part, fall into that category,” Kelly said.

The idea for checking travelers’ social media activity was floated in June 2016 by Customs and Border Protection.  CBP proposed adding a line to visa applications forms asking travelers to voluntarily submit information about their online accounts, including the provider and their social media identifier, according to a report in The Guardian.

The measure was finalized in late December, after which short-term visitors to the U.S. filling out the Electronic System for Travel Authorization form were prompted to provide their user names for their accounts on platforms including Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube, Politico reported.

This article was first posted to FCW, a sister site to GCN.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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