'Invasion Of Privacy': U.S. Will Ask For Social Media Handles During Visa Application

The U.S. State Department is now requiring most visa applicants to hand over their social media usernames, sparking privacy concerns and fears the process will impact freedom of speech online.

Under the updated regulations -- which were initially announced last year -- applicants will need to submit five years of social media handles for specific platforms chosen by the government.

That includes accounts from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube, Reddit and Pinterest, according to a screenshot of the application process from immigration lawyer Greg Siskind.

The state department said the change to both immigrant and non-immigrant visa applicants is designed to improve national security screenings.

"We are constantly working to find mechanisms to improve our screening processes to protect US citizens, while supporting legitimate travel to the United States," a spokesperson said.

"Collecting this additional information from visa applicants will strengthen our process for vetting these applicants and confirming their identity."

Prior to the update, only visa applications that required additional screening would have to submit social media information, while it was an optional step for everyone else. It is now expected the move will affect about 15 million foreigners who apply for visas to enter the U.S. each year.

Applicants will be presented with a drop-down menu of social media platforms to choose from. Image: Greg Siskind / Twitter

The ability to dig deeper into the backgrounds of foreign travellers has been on the Trump administration's wish list since the president was elected.

But privacy advocates have grave concerns about the requirements.

When the plan was first announced March 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called social media monitoring "ineffective and deeply problematic".

"It will infringe on the rights of immigrants and US citizens by chilling freedom of speech and association," Director of the ACLU's National Security Project Hina Shamsi said in a statement.

"Particularly because people will now have to wonder if what they say online will be misconstrued or misunderstood by a government official."

Shamsi also said there is a "real risk" social media vetting will unfairly target travellers from Muslim-majority countries for discriminatory visa denials.

Swinburne University Social Media Major Director Dr Belinda Barnet said it is unlikely such a process would be accepted in Australia.

"It is an invasion of privacy," she told 10 daily.

"It's not really a surprise that something this draconian would be implemented in the U.S., but if it happened here of course there'd be an outcry."

Image: Getty

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Dr Barnet said it was unlikely government officials would have time to trawl through the social media posts of everyone applying for a U.S. visa, making it likely there would be a specific list of target countries.

"But it will mean that people worry about what they are posting," she said.

"They may worry that they're being critical of the U.S. government for example, because we don't know specifically what they're looking for."

In addition to social media histories, visa applicants are now asked for previously used telephone numbers, email addresses, international travel and deportation status, and any family history of involvement in terrorist activities.

The decision will take effect following a 60-day period for the public to comment on the plan, which began over the weekend.