Earlier this week, incoming Harvard freshman Ismail B. noticed that Ajjawi no longer had access to the US. Ajjawi, a Palestinian resident of Lebanon, had landed in Boston before the lessons started. But The Harvard Crimson reported that the US customs and border protection agents have withdrawn their visa after hours of asking. Ajjawi said a CBP agent searched his phone and laptop while asking about the social media activity of his friends. Then she started yelling & # 39; at me & # 39 ;, said Ajjawi. "She said she came across people who post political views that are against the US on my friend list."
CBP did not reveal what the Ajjawi visa actually withdrew. "Specific information about individual travelers cannot be released due to the requirements of the Privacy Act and for law enforcement purposes," an agency spokesperson said The edge. "This person was considered inadmissible to the United States based on information discovered during the CBP inspection."
But his case is just one incident in a disturbing and established trend of expanding social media surveillance at the border. The Obama-era Department of Homeland Security initially proposed an “online presence” field for people requesting visa waiver, and Trump's administration quickly made progress in asking for data on social media. Some border agents have aggressively pushed visitors to disclose their account handles, even when the practice was optional. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs began demanding that most visa applicants have to state their social media accounts.
This week offers a nightmare scenario for this study. Ajjawi's report suggests that digital surveillance goes far beyond checking whether a potential immigrant is a criminal threat – and that border workers treat thin social media connections as close, meaningful relationships.
In some ways, checking social media posts is not as invasive as viewing private files on a device, something the CBP has been doing for years to find child pornography or other illegal material. Nevertheless, it can have a hair-raising effect on speech, making people afraid to give their political opinion online – or to say something, because messages on social media can easily be misinterpreted. "There is a lot of freedom of expression and freedom of association when looking at someone's social media, even to consult veterinarians to come to the US," says Sophia Cope, senior staff lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
While people are being held or physically abused for refusing to unlock electronic devices, there have been relatively few major incidents, particularly social media. It is also not clear that checking the posts of visa applicants is also very useful. The DHS proposed rules for social media after reports that the shooter Tashfeen Malik from San Bernardino had publicly posted about the jihad online. But the FBI said those reports were not true. A 2019 Brennan Center for Justice report noted that DHS pilot programs monitoring social media were "in particular unsuccessful" in finding threats to national security. Instead, co-author Faiza Patel argued on Twitter, it is most useful for "directing political and religious views – or even assumptions based on what your friends say."
So does CBP really assess visa applicants on their Twitter feed or Facebook friends list? Cases like Ajjawi's – where someone apparently was punished for things they didn't even say – certainly seem rare. But we also rely on very incomplete data and more vulnerable visitors can hesitate to tell their stories. "I think there is something very unique about this set of circumstances," said Mana Azarmi Center for Democracy and Technology policy adviser, because the incident involves a student from a prestigious university with a prominent university paper who could pick up the story. "That kind of high visibility – we shouldn't expect that from every interaction with CBP."
A CBP spokesperson emphasized The edge that device searches affect "less than one hundredth of a percent of travelers arriving to the United States." But Azarmi points out that we don't really know how these travelers are chosen – including whether they have been selected for unfair reasons, and whether they are regularly asked about disturbing details, such as the opinions of their friends. “Have CBP staff been instructed to do that? Is that something they are looking forward to? & # 39; she says. “We need to know what structure there is to ensure that travelers are not confronted with abuse. And we don't have that kind of information. "
Civil liberties advocates do not even know for certain how border agents have found the posts of Ajjawi & # 39; s friends. According to a 2017 rule, officers should not have access to data stored outside the device, including full social media feeds on a phone or laptop. In this case, an officer may have seen cached messages, they may have visited his friends on a separate computer, or they may have just broken the rules – but there is little external monitoring that would help us figure out which of those scenarios & # 39; s most likely. The edge asked CBP to confirm that it would have put aircraft in aircraft mode before they were searched; a spokesperson referred us to an information sheet in which the policy is not mentioned.
Unlike texts or emails, it is difficult to make social media truly private without defeating the purpose. And other many other law enforcement agencies use publicly available data for surveillance; for example, the police have kept Facebook and Twitter data to track protests. There is still no consensus on how deeply the government can extract this type of data. But when so many are easily accessible, it can be used in very disturbing ways.
Right now, the best way to protect social media data at the border is to simply remove apps and close browser tabs – but that doesn't determine when the government should be able to find your friends online. "We just have to expect stories like this to happen more often," Azarmi says about this week's events. "Because this collection has become more routine."