The new "option" affects travelers from 38 countries.

By Cailey Rizzo
January 03, 2017
Why U.S. is asking visitors for social media information
Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The U.S. government is now requesting social media data on foreigners from 38 countries who pass through customs check points, according to a report from Politico.

On December 20, a new visa waiver program began presenting foreign travelers to the United States an “optional” request for information about their “online presence.” When filling out digital customs forms, foreign travelers now see a request for information about social media accounts.

Information about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube accounts are included in the drop-down menu of options.

The request is meant to “identify potential threats” entering the U.S., although the agency has said it will not prohibit entry to anyone who does not furnish social media information.

Although the social media spaces are completely optional whether or not to fill in, both tech companies and privacy advocates are against the new requests. Some are concerned that foreigners who do not speak English well will think that social media information is necessary to pass through customs. And others are worried that other countries may see the U.S.’s request for information and began making it mandatory in their country.

It’s yet unclear how many travelers to the U.S. have filled in their social media information while passing through customs.

The request for social media information only shows up in what’s known as the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). ESTA, along with a paper form, is the process foreigners from 38 countries must complete to pass through U.S. borders without a visa.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency submitted the social media proposal to the federal register of the American government back in June. The public had 60 days to respond to the proposal before it was brought before a vote.

One such letter from the American Civil Liberties Union came out staunchly against the proposal, predicting that the brunt of the change would “fall hardest on Arab and Muslim communities, whose usernames, posts, contacts, and social networks will be exposed to intense scrutiny.”

Others are concerned that because of cultural or linguistic differences between customs agents and foreigners, some social media posts may be misconstrued, creating “disproportionate risks,” according to the Center for Democracy & Technology.

The vast majority of comments submitted—from individuals and consumer advocacy groups—were negative, but despite those complaints, the proposal was approved on December 19.