Make Sure You Wash Behind Your Profile

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.  fbios 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.


  1. laurencondon23 · ·

    Very interesting post! Similar to your experience, this proposal raised a lot of questions for me. Would the government require social media platforms to provide them with this information? Given that users have different privacy settings, I do not think the government would have equal access to screen every person in the same manner. If it is voluntary, would social media platforms be willing to cooperate with the government on this? Judging from Apple’s refusal to unlock the iPhone and similar cases in the news, I doubt they would willingly provide the government with all the information they would be requesting. If the government does end up successfully being able to mandate all social media platforms to provide them with all the information they request, would that start a trend of users deleting their accounts (especially non frequent users like your mother)?

  2. Very insightful post. I’m curious to see how the courts rule on these issues, given how they shut down the recent immigration ban from several muslim majority nations. One of the reasons the immigration ban was blocked by the courts was because there was no proof that any terrorist attacks have been committed by individuals from the indicated countries. On the contrary, there is proof that domestic terrorist attacks have been closely tied to radicalization via social media and the internet. I hope the new administration can find a way to use social media as a terrorism prevention tool, while also being careful not to violate the rights of any of our citizens.

  3. benrmcarthur · ·

    I think your blog provokes a lot of serious thought regarding the implications of such a request, especially from a country with no link to active terrorism. I also think it’s worth noting how someone’s history online is different from the person they are today. For example, back in middle school, I created a Facebook group called “Anti Justin Bieber”. It was a joke and a way for me to humor my friends with opposition to mainstream heartthrobs. However, I grew beyond that phase to ultimately become a fan of Justin’s. In college, the group I forgot about grew to about 20K in size and in no way did I want that associated with my name. While this example may be obscure, I’d imagine that it isn’t fair for someone’s history of their SM 8 years ago to affect their access to a country.

  4. Really interesting piece – this raises a lot of interesting First Amendment questions, and is reflective of all of the confusion that exists out there at the moment. Having gone through the U.S. visa process several times, I can tell you that it is already very thorough. I have had four different U.S. visas over the last seven years and I think the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) already request a huge amount of information for all of those traveling to the U.S. We would be naive to think that the N.S.A. is not already doing this to some extent already, but I don’t know what the value of extending this to include social media for all foreign visitors – it seems like another half-baked, populist idea that hopefully won’t come to be.

  5. Nice post. I do agree that these new practices are somewhat alarming (including their right to do so at the border). I *think* (with no basis in legal expertise) that much of it might hinge on why they are collecting the data. If they are collecting it to provide security, I think they can get away with it. I think if they begin to use it for other purposes, then the courts would intervene. But, apparently, you’re not even safe as a US citizen.

  6. duffyfallon · ·

    Interesting post. My first reaction to the ideas you touch on is that the government is already doing this – screening social media footprints of foreigner’s and US citizens alike. To what extent, I don’t know – but I definitely stand on the side of these practices being more pervasive than we recognize. According to Snowden and other ‘whistleblowers’, the government has been doing this since 9/11 – and there’s no sign of it winding down anytime soon. If they (the gov) really want the social media information of travelers entering our country, they can get it without asking. Additionally, I clicked into the link you referenced, and it makes a clear that providing social media information is optional and has been done before in previous administrations.

    “Answering the question would be “optional,” CBP said in a notice set for publication Tuesday in the Federal Register. Those who don’t wish to answer will have their travel requests processed “without a negative interpretation or inference,” the notice said.

    The Obama administration rolled out a similar, voluntary, social-media screening effort late last year for travelers eligible to enter the U.S. through the Visa Waiver Program, which includes many European countries and other highly-developed nations.”

  7. Ciaran_Cleary · ·

    Interesting post Danny, certainly an alarming thing to think about. I definitely have said things and done things on social media when I was 15 years old that in no way represents who I am or what I do today. I could not imagine a government going deep into that. Not only does it seem like a breach of privacy, but it seems like a waste of time. I do wonder though, what is the difference of a government looking at this type of data compared to another business buying certain data from these companies. Regardless of what happens, this is an important reminder to be careful of what one posts on social media.

  8. This is a really though provoking blog post about the implications of immigration policies, which will not only affect people from abroad coming to the U.S. but also U.S. citizens traveling abroad. I recently heard a story about a Colombian who was asked to show his phone when he was entering the U.S. through Miami, and he was denied entry after the officer found different memes and pictures making fun of Donald Trump. Even though those memes may be offensive, authorities should understand that they are out there on the web and having those pictures on your phone do not necessarily reflect the person that you are. In my opinion, there could be other counter-terrorism policies which might be more effective and not as intruding to a regular citizen. At the end of the day, social media information is public and the government could have someone doing background checks on everyone, but asking for someone’s private information is what crosses the line in my opinion.

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