US to check social media posts before allowing visitors entry

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By Robert Hackwill
US to check social media posts before allowing visitors entry

Remember when you posted those unflattering comments about Donald Trump on Facebook or that photoshopped picture of him on Instagram with tiny hands and a fluffy ginger cat on his head? Well, if you were thinking of a visit to Disneyland in Florida any time soon, you may have to change your holiday plans, as the US of A is considering checking out your social media profiles before allowing you to enter the country.

That means that if you are friends with Billy Bragg or click on “like” when you read a post by Noam Chomsky, you may be a godless Communist who may not be welcome in the land of the free. And those opinions you posted about Israel or 9-11? Well, forget it, you are a terrorist sympathiser and not welcome.

The proposal was first laid out back in June and applies only to those travelers who enter the US temporarily without a visa through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA process. The goal, the government says, is to “identify potential threats”.

Now, according to a report in Politico since before Christmas US Customs and Border Protection are starting to demand that foreign travelers “enter information associated with your online presence,” and offers a drop-down menu allowing participants to enter in account names for most major social networks, including LinkedIn and even Google+ when applying to enter the USA.

What is not clear is if the information collected can be immediately used to deny travelers entry into the US. For the moment Customs and Border Protection says it will not deny entry to those that refuse to submit any social media information.

The proposals have human rights groups and hi-tech firms up in arms as they fear the system is open to abuse and will unfairly target individuals from marginalised groups in the Middle East and elsewhere. The collected information will be subject to intense scrutiny with no clear guidelines or standards, and it will be far too easy to draw false conclusions on things taken out of context. It could remain on government hard drives for years.

This social media snooping may be a sign of things to come. Data-mining firm Palantir, which was co-founded by Trump advisor Peter Thiel, has already been working with US Customs and Border Protection to track immigrants and foreign travelers, and a Trump campaign promise was to set up a national database of every single Muslim living in America.

For the moment only citizens from 32 countries qualifying for the ESTA system will be subjected to the questionnaire, but there are fears that with the USA implementing such a system, other nations will follow, thus meaning Americans will have to give up their social media secrets if they want to travel abroad.

It does not require a leap of the imagination to see how some applicants could also be put at risk over, say, their sexuality. It all smacks of Big Brother, and experts even wonder if it will be effective in preventing potentially dangerous individuals from entering the country, as smart terrorists will surely simply say they have no social media profiles.