Experts, tech companies skeptical of CBP proposal to collect social media info

An association for several internet giants, and several other advocacy groups are not enthused by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's proposal to ask people for their social media identifiers on some U.S. travel forms.

An association for several internet giants, and a number of advocacy groups are not enthused by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s proposal to ask people for their social media identifiers on some U.S. travel forms.

In comments sent to CBP, the Internet Association — a 40-member group that includes social media companies such as Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and Twitter — said the proposal would possibly “have a chilling effect on use of social media networks, online sharing and, ultimately, free speech online.”

And a different letter signed by more than 30 organizations opposed the proposal, saying “this program would invade individual privacy and imperil freedom of expression while being ineffective and prohibitively expensive to implement and maintain.”

CBP has been receiving feedback on the proposal to add a question to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, known as ESTA, and I-94W forms: “Please enter information associated with your online presence — Provider/Platform — Social media identifier.” The comment period for the proposed addition, which would affect people traveling to the U.S. under a visa waiver program, closed Monday.


[Read more: CBP: Travelers’ social media could spotlight potential ‘nefarious activity’]

The question would “further enhance the security vetting process and support the adjudication of Visa Waiver Program ineligibility waivers,” a CBP spokesperson said in a statement.

The spokesperson added that it would also enhance “DHS’ ability to communicate with visa waiver applicants electronically.”

Whether DHS will be tweeting or poking applicants on Facebook remains unclear.

The CBP spokesperson said the question would be “clearly marked as ‘optional’” on the revised ESTA application.


“Providing this information is voluntary,” the spokesperson said. “Choosing not to provide this information will not result in a denial of an ESTA application.”

The spokesperson also noted that: “DHS will only have access to information publicly available on those platforms, consistent with the privacy settings of the platforms.”

The coalition letter described the collection of online identifiers as “highly invasive,” and voiced concerns that people would have little or no opportunity to explain their profiles or challenge denials.

One organization’s comments stood out from the “crowd” so to speak, of technology advocacy organizations, companies and other interest groups.

The Center for Data Innovation said in its comments to CBP that it supports the exploration of using social media identifiers to enhance national security.


“DHS is unable determine if it can effectively use social media data to screen travelers unless it first conducts a pilot program,” the center said. “It is therefore prudent for DHS to proceed with this data collection to study the effectiveness of such an effort, but it should refrain from using the data on a widespread basis until it can verify that it has produced a system that delivers useful results.”

Daniel Castro, director of the Center for Data Innovation, told FedScoop this is a chance for the government to collect data and try to use it to be more effective.

“We’re seeing social media data being used in lots of innovative ways,” he said. “There’s no reason the government shouldn’t try and do that as well.”

Castro said the conversation around the proposal is somewhat limited because the public doesn’t know how the government will use the data yet.

“It’s an un-ideal conversation that we’re having because they’re saying, ‘Well we want to collect this and then we’re going to kind of see how we can use it,” he said.


But Castro said it can be “difficult to make progress,” when people assume government data collection is bad. He noted that information already publicly posted is available for anyone to use.

“We have to find a way to kind of balance, this maybe distrust of government with the need to recognize there’s a very positive and important role for government to play in collecting and using data so it can work better,” he said.

The Internet Association noted that it was concerned about the scope of the data requested and how it would be used, including from a cost perspective.

“While the Internet Association supports the national security objective underpinning the DHS proposal, it is unclear from the notice how DHS would seek to achieve this goal,” the IA said. “Analysis of all applicants’ social media ‘activity and connections’ would be costly and difficult.”

IA’s comments note that “this cost does not appear to be factored into DHS’ analysis.” The comments also noted that asking social media platforms to give extra information is a burden for them.


Castro said cost is not necessarily prohibitive, depending on how the DHS plans to use the data.

“Collecting every piece of social media data and analyzing it — yeah, that’s probably not cost effective,” he said. “That’s probably not what they would do.”

He added: “Doing some targeted analytics in certain cases, doing some social network analysis in certain situations to develop risk profiles for people, you know that is something that could be considered.”

Castro noted that the center’s comments stress the need for involvement from the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to make sure the system protects civil liberties.

Another concern voiced in the comments FedScoop reviewed was with the accuracy of the data. The Internet Association’s comments note that someone’s “declaration” of a username should not necessarily be taken as fact.


The Center for Data Innovation also listed this as a concern, but said this, among many of the potential problems with using social media data, is not “necessarily insurmountable.”

“For example, CBP already must handle the problem of determining whether the information submitted by travelers in response to other questions is accurate and complete,” the document’s authors, including Castro, wrote.

Samantha Ehlinger

Written by Samantha Ehlinger

Samantha Ehlinger is a technology reporter for FedScoop. Her work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and several McClatchy papers, including Miami Herald and The State. She was a part of a McClatchy investigative team for the “Irradiated” project on nuclear worker conditions, which won a McClatchy President’s Award. She is a graduate of Texas Christian University. Contact Samantha via email at, or follow her on Twitter at @samehlinger. Subscribe to the Daily Scoop for stories like this in your inbox every morning by signing up here:

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