Within the past several weeks, in an effort to prevent domestic terrorism, the Trump administration has discussed and proposed requesting the disclosure of any websites, social media accounts, and cell phone contacts of foreign visitors to the United States. White House policy director Stephen Miller has even suggested that visitors could be denied entry to the U.S. based on a refusal to provide the information requested. Most recently, the Trump administration has proposed requesting social media information for Chinese citizens (i.e., people from an additional country that has no apparent links to any domestic terrorism events) traveling to the United States. Rather than talk about the politics behind these proposals (which I’m sure we’d all have strong opinions about), in this post I’d like to discuss what types of potential unintended consequences this type of action could have.
My first reaction to this news is uncertainty about how this will affect me personally. I greatly enjoy travel abroad and I wonder about the type of obstacles that lay ahead should other countries adopt the same types of policies for U.S. citizens in order to reciprocate. If I happened to say something derogatory about a country five years ago on Facebook, would that be enough to deny me entry into that country? Being ethnically Chinese, my parents visit China almost every year. Will they expand the policy to ethnically Chinese U.S. citizens who are returning from China? Will my mother (who is a U.S. citizen and has approximately five friends on Facebook and no profile picture) ultimately be forced to provide her Facebook credentials to get back into the U.S. after a visit to China? I’m guessing she may not even remember her Facebook login at this point. This obviously has the potential to be a slippery slope for not just foreigners visiting the U.S. but also for U.S. citizens intent on traveling abroad.
How about the implications of making it more difficult and intrusive for business travelers? If I’m a foreign businessperson making my first trip to the U.S., what is the impression I get of how friendly the U.S. is when Homeland Security asks for my Twitter password the moment I step on U.S. soil to comb through everything I’ve ever posted ? While I can’t say that would be a deal-breaker for doing business in the U.S., I can see it leaving a bad taste in one’s mouth. Also, are there going to be objective standards for what types of posts/content on social media would be just cause for detainment or to deny someone entry into the U.S.? If there’s not clear, objective guidelines for what is and isn’t suspicious or warrants further review, I think it becomes much more likely that foreigners and U.S. citizens begin scrubbing their social media accounts of anything that could be in any way be considered objectionable content.
The other consideration is what this would mean for the social media platforms themselves. In 2016, Google began removing search results for European Union users based on the “Right to be forgotten” ruling in 2014. Citizens of the EU were all of a sudden able to begin changing their online presence to represent what they wanted the world to see of them. While Google was forced by courts to make this change, what happens when users of social media begin to demand tools that help them easily remove or shape content on those platforms? I would have a hard time believing that social media platforms wouldn’t succumb to pressure from users to provide even better tools to manage content. On the other hand, this would end up putting social media platforms at odds with the goals of the government and Homeland Security. Should screening of social media and Internet footprints of foreigners and citizens begin to become the norm, it will certainly be a significant challenge for social media platforms to successfully navigate the concerns and needs of all stakeholders involved.
One of the most glaring examples of the challenges that companies face when confronted with the needs of government versus the privacy concerns of citizens is the locked iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. As a quick recap: after the San Bernardino attack, an iPhone belonging to one of the terrorists was recovered. In an effort to garner additional information, the FBI requested that Apple create a way to bypass the iPhone’s security features to unlock the phone. Apple, citing the security concerns for their customers and overarching implications of creating such a piece of software, declined to provide a workaround and ultimately appealed the court order by the Department of Justice. Ultimately, the FBI found a third party that was able to assist in unlocking the iPhone and withdrew their request. One could make the argument that even though the government eventually got the information they wanted, the Apple case was a moral victory for privacy advocates and ended up being a net positive for Apple’s brand.
So where do we go from here? It’s as of yet unclear whether the proposals by President Trump’s administration to screen social media accounts of foreigners has any real legs, but should these types of policies be put into place, it’s incumbent upon us as U.S. citizens to consider what the trickle-down effects of a policy like this are. If the U.S. does decide to move forward on these policies, anyone and everyone who has a desire or need to travel needs to be prepared to answer some tough questions about who they are based on their presence on the Internet.