Will Snooping Social Media Profiles Make US Borders Safer?

US customs can now demand your passwords and snoop through your social media and personal devices. Refuse and you'll be denied entry - or worse. The question is whether this incredible privacy intrusion is even effective at all at fighting terrorism let alone justified.

US Customs Social Media Checks
Ben Dickson
By Ben Dickson

You will soon have to worry about what you post on Facebook and Twitter when you reach US border crossings or when you apply for immigration. According to a recent notice posted on the Federal Register by the Department of Homeland Security, the agency will add “social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results” to the information it stores about immigrants. This includes permanent residents and naturalized citizens.

In a separate notice, the DHS and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have made the proposition for a new Intelligence Records System (CIRS) which will collect information from public sources, including social media, commercial sites and news outlets.

This basically means anything you say or do on the internet (or others do in your name, for that matter) can be used against you when you enter the US.

What exactly is the DHS looking for?

The agency maintains the measure will enable law enforcement to consolidate data from disparate sources in order to be better positioned to perform background checks and identify individuals who pose security risks.

However, privacy advocates and experts question the effectiveness of such social media monitoring. They also warn that it will threaten free speech and risk creating an environment of fear and confusion.

The fact that the notice also includes aliases and associated identifiable information alludes to an open-ended structure that will cover much more than your official online profiles. The internet provides users with the possibility to engage in activities in anonymous and pseudonymous ways. Revealing such identities can have implications for security researchers, investigative journalists and activists who have reason to separate their digital and real lives when expressing their thoughts online.

But it can also affect the lives of people who interact with those pseudonymous profiles, which will cast a shadow on freedom of association as well.

Will this pave the way for abusive conduct at border crossings?

Backing the government’s position are instances were persons involved in acts of terrorism used social media to promote their ideology prior to committing violent crimes. However, more often than not, those individuals are clever enough to hide their traces and use obscure interfaces and pseudonyms to carry out their goals. This means monitoring public information will be of little use, unless law enforcement officers manage to establish links between those pseudonymous accounts and their real owners.

This will give border cops more reason to search the smartphones of travelers at border crossings, which has caused general concern. The Fourth Amendment has little effect at the US borders and grants little in terms of rights to privacy to the average person.

According to a batch of documents obtained by Gizmodo, which dated back to 2016, border cops are taking full advantage of their authority to sift through phones and sometimes confiscate them for months.

What makes these developments especially troubling is the fact that they’re taking place against the backdrop of an increase in aggressive behavior at US borders in recent months. In one case, CBP officers forced a NASA scientist to unlock his work phone, which might have contained confidential information. In another case, an independent filmmaker was physically restrained by border cops after he refused to hand over his phone.

Non-citizens who refuse to unlock their phones can be denied entry to the US.

How does this affect normal people?

While there’s the general argument that you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide, the Gizmodo files show evidence that border cops often abuse their powers to invade the privacy and private lives of travelers for unlawful reasons. Also, the unclear boundaries of the law make it hard to determine what law enforcement should look for when going through your social media profiles.

This will effectively push ordinary people toward avoiding to express their thoughts on the internet for fear of falling afoul of the new law.

The intrusive new powers are likely to have a chilling effect on free speech

According to Adam Schwartz, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “People may censor themselves because they’re worried about coming up for a status upgrade—from being a student visa to being a worker visa or from a work visa to a lawful permanent resident or an LPR to a naturalized citizen. DHS could open up their file and see that in 2017 they said ‘Donald Trump makes me so angry, sometimes I wish he wasn’t the president’.

“So it’s a real disservice to freedom of expression on the internet and it’s an impoverishment of the national conversation when millions of people with a unique perspective are deterred from participating in social media discourse,” he told Wired.

Meanwhile, those who have evil intentions are already well-versed in how to avoid getting caught at the borders without disobeying law enforcement.

How effective is social media monitoring?

Experts also argue that without clear criteria, government agencies will become engaged in an endless loop of collecting and examining data that will be of no use.

According to evaluations made by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the wholesale screening of social media profiles has no clear criteria and goals, and has ambiguous gains.

“Tens of thousands of people a day get off planes—imagine that you’re trying to read through all of their Facebook histories in all different foreign languages,” says Edward Hasbrouck from The Identity Project, who also spoke to Wired.

“Forget it. Most of this stuff will never be read by a human, can’t possibly be read by a human and will just become grist for the mill for robotic profiling. It will be more effective as a guilt-by-association and suspicion-generating machine.”

Can you protect yourself?

There are several things you can do if you don’t appreciate border agents sifting through your private digital data. Privacy experts recommend not to use your everyday device when you go on travels, and instead use burner phones or a separate travel kit comprised of devices that contain no sensitive information and aren’t associated with any of your social media profiles.

Also, if you remain adamant on not allowing cops to unlock your phone without your consent, you should consider disabling TouchID or FaceID and sticking to good old passcodes when traveling. As we’ve discussed on Privacy Central before, biometric authentication can be triggered without your consent.

Our advice: use burner devices and revert to passcodes rather than biometric security

However, you should also consider that this in itself can arouse suspicion and be interpreted as an admission of guilt.

It’s still unclear how the DHS and other federal agencies will make use of the information they scavenge from the web.

The progress of machine learning algorithms will eventually enable them to better analyze the reams of data they collect. Companies such as Facebook and YouTube are already making wide use of algorithms to discover posts that violate their terms of use.

But for the moment what’s for sure is that you better go through your Facebook timeline before you make your next trip to the US.