FAQ: U.S. government monitoring of social media

Yes. Since December 2016, all visitors to the U. S. under the ‘Visa Waiver Program’ (VWP) have been asked to identify the social media IDs they use to the Department of State on the online ESTA form. In several recent notices in the Federal Register, and in official statements in response to questions about those notices, the Department of Homeland Security has confirmed that it already searches for and reviews information about individuals from social media.

Why is the U. S. singling out immigrants and visitors for this surveillance? The U. S. government is targeting foreigners first because they are legally more vulnerable. Under U. S. law, foreign visitors and immigrants have often been held to have fewer rights than U. S. citizens. We don’t think this is the way it ought to be, and we don’t think this is even a correct reading of the U. S. Constitution and the human rights treaties that the U. S. has ratified. But this is often the way that courts have ruled. Most acts of terrorism in the U. S., like most crimes of any sort, are committed by U. S. citizens. Most of those criminals are white, and most of them are Christian, not that this should matter either. In practice, the government knows that it is more likely to be able to get away with surveillance of foreigners – on social media or in any other realm – than with surveillance that targets U. S. citizens equally or that focuses on, say, white Christian nationalist sources of terrorism.

This post was published at Papers Please on Oct 2, 2017.