Posted by Guest on October 24, 2017 in Blog

by Sarah Seniuk

Without much fanfare, the Department of Homeland Security codified and escalated an unofficial policy they had been pursuing for years - the surveillance of the social media accounts of would-be US immigrants and naturalized citizens. DHS will specifically includesocial media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results” and “ expand the data elements used to retrieve records.” While the policy is designed to target US immigrants, the actual reach of the program is significantly broader and includes, but is not limited to:

  • Lawful permanent residents;

  • Naturalized US citizens

  • Those who receive benefits from the INA

  • Those who have been or currently are under investigation by DHS

  • Relatives or associates of any of the aforementioned categories

  • Preparers, interpreters, and attorneys who are assisting those seeking immigration benefits

The gathered information is placed into dossiers as individuals move through the immigration process. The collection of this social media data is worrisome for a number of reasons: the perpetuation of ineffective counter-terrorism policies, the potential for political beliefs to be a determining factor for immigration benefits, and most importantly, further normalizing an environment of surveillance.

Counterterrorism?

Looking at social media accounts for possible ties to extremist or terror related activities is not new or unique to the Trump administration, nor to the United States. The rise of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and their deft use of social media for recruitment and propaganda shocked citizens and counterterrorism officials alike, and made the monitoring of social media accounts a priority. Following the 2015 shooting in San Bernardino both Republicans and Democrats supported the collection of social media information for visa applicants. But while terror organizations themselves have been able to leverage social media as a way to increase their own visibility, social media has been an ineffective tool for pinpointing individuals who might become radicalized or who might commit a terrorist act. In a comment to Buzzfeed News, Faiza Patel of the Brennan Center for Justice noted that “it’s very difficult to successfully use social media to determine what people are going or not going to do.” One of the problems is that is assumes that there is an accurate way to profile or predict radicalization, a key tenant of Countering Violent Extremism policies, which has proven to be inaccurate.

Restriction of Immigration Benefits?

Patel also noted that while one’s social media presence is not an effective tool for predicting violence, it certainly has the ability to illuminate an individual’s political or religious beliefs. Though it is unclear if any information gleaned from monitoring social media accounts has been the sole reason for denying immigration benefits, it has been used as cross-reference for already-flagged individuals. This is not to say that the possibility of the data to be used in this way is unimaginable. The greater concern for rights groups is that it may pose a sort of ideological litmus test for those seeking to immigrate to the US.  To be sure, while the oath of naturalization for the US requires applicants to support the Constitution, it does not preclude holding opposing political views.

Normalizing Surveillance

Because monitoring social media is an ineffective tool for protecting US national security, as demonstrated in the previous two sections, we must wonder why governmental resources would be dedicated to such a pursuit. And a strong case can be made for normalizing an environment of surveillance in the US for citizens and visitors. Mass surveillance is a reality in the US, particularly with the introduction of the Patriot Act in 2001 and its partial continuation through the Freedom Act, the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, and the PRISM program which is still in effect. In the two years following Edward Snowden’s revelations illustrating the extent of US mass surveillance against both citizens and foreign nationals, 34% of people who were aware of the surveillance programs “have taken at least one step to hide or shield their information from the government.” Fast forward to 2017, and now “seven-in-ten US adults say it is at least somewhat likely that their own phone calls and emails are being monitored by the government.”  Similarly, 57% of Americans disapproved of the government monitoring of US citizens, but approximately half polled said that “it is acceptable for the US government to monitor the communications of citizens of other countries.” It seems that Americans have accepted mass surveillance as the reality of living in 2017.

Real Consequences

But an acceptance of surveillance is a dangerous threat to our democratic ideals and a thriving civil society - the monitoring and collection of our communications and data has serious ideological implications. It can lead to self-censoring for fear of reprisal in personal and public lives, from individuals and from media groups. For journalists, who are our best source of information about our government’s actions, they have experienced a decrease in open communication from the government, the prosecution of whistleblowers, and a potential loss of anonymity and protection when government officials seek to speak to the press. Dialogue and dissent are necessary to keep governmental overreach in check, and to (re)define the path of the country moving forward.

If concerns over the ideological implications of surveillance are too abstract, it also has significant real life consequences. Dearborn, Michigan is the most obvious example of the negative impact of these policies as evidenced by the percentage of residents on the secretive terror watch list. According to the Huffington Post, “The US government would have you believe there are more terrorists or potential terrorists per capita in Dearborn than anywhere else in the country.” Arab Americans and American Muslims in Dearborn have been subjected to surveillance, the freezing of bank accounts, wrongful arrests and raids, and travel restrictions.

Even prior to the codification of the new DHS rule on the surveillance of social media, US immigrants and immigrant communities were already the most vulnerable group. Rana Abbas of the Arab American Civil Rights League located in Dearborn noted:

“Being recent immigrants, they’re unfamiliar with the laws of the land that they live in, unfamiliar with the rights that they do have living here in this country, and so that fear just is compounded with that lack of information that they have,” she said. “It translates to this sitting duck syndrome that these individuals have, who have this fear against the very entities that they believe are in place to protect and serve them.”

This is a dangerous precedent. The mass surveillance of US immigrants and US citizens threatens our abilities to dissent, it restricts our daily freedoms, and because this newest rule of surveillance targets immigrants foremost, it promotes division amongst Americans and a disinterest in taking action against such policies.


Sarah Seniuk is a 2017 fall intern at the Arab American Institute