Are you ready to give up your social media passwords to travel into America?
A few days after President Trump’s travel ban targeting seven primarily Muslim and non-white countries, NASA engineer Sidd Bikkannavar flew back from Chile into the Houston airport where he was detained by US Customs and Border Patrol. Unlike many of the travelers detained in the Trump administration’s new ban, Bikkannavar was born in the United States and enrolled in Global Entry — a CBP program that expedites entry to the US for individuals who have undergone background checks. Still, Bikkannavar soon found himself being led to a back room where several detainees where waiting and sleeping on cots. Once inside the interview room, CBP agents began pressuring him to turn over his phone and passwords.
He was reluctant to hand over the device which was technically owned by NASA, and potentially contained sensitive information.
“I was cautiously telling him I wasn’t allowed to give it out, because I didn’t want to seem like I was not cooperating…I told him I’m not really allowed to give the passcode; I have to protect access. But he insisted they had the authority to search it.”
When Bikkannavar resisted the officer’s demand for his phone PIN, the officer claimed that CBP had the legal right to search his phone and handed him a document titled “Inspection of Electronic Devices”.
Bikkannavar’s experience could become a familiar reality for those seeking U.S. visas, if the Trump administration gets their way. Only it is not necessarily phone passwords the administration is after, not yet, they want to require US visa applicants from the seven countries targeted by the travel ban to turn over social media passwords and user names. At a congressional hearing earlier this month Homeland Security Secretary, John Kelly, told the House Homeland Security Committee:
“We want to get on their social media, with passwords: What do you do, what do you say? If they don’t want to cooperate then you don’t come in.”
If it seems strange that an administration run by a president, who refuses to release his tax returns to the public, would concoct such a privacy violating plan…it is because the plan is actually borrowed from the Obama administration. According to a memo released by MSMBC, the Department of Homeland Security considered requiring visa applicants to submit their social media passwords and account handles to help screeners vet applicants, but the measure was never adopted.
This would mean anyone from the seven targeted countries would have to allow the U.S. government to access every message, photo, and exchange that they ever had on social media for a U.S. visa. A measure that foreign governments could use to retaliate against US travelers by demanding the same access to their social media passwords. Instead, DHS started presenting select foreign travelers arriving in the United States on the visa waiver program an “optional” request to “enter information associated with your online presence.” The Department of Homeland Security introduced this new measure in June, and quietly rolled it out in December of 2016.
In response to the passwords plan, a coalition of human rights and civil liberties organizations, trade associations, and security and technology experts issued a statement in opposition last week:
This proposal would enable border officials to invade people’s privacy by examining years of private emails, texts, and messages. It would expose travelers and everyone in their social networks, including potentially millions of U.S. citizens, to excessive, unjustified scrutiny. And it would discourage people from using online services or taking their devices with them while traveling, and would discourage travel for business, tourism, and journalism.
Demands from U.S. border officials for passwords to social media accounts will also set a precedent that may ultimately affect all travelers around the world. This demand is likely to be mirrored by foreign governments, which will demand passwords from U.S. citizens when they seek entry to foreign countries. This would compromise U.S. economic security, cybersecurity, and national security, as well as damage the U.S.’s relationships with foreign governments and their citizenry.
Policies to demand passwords as a condition of travel, as well as more general efforts to force individuals to disclose their online activity, including potentially years’ worth of private and public communications, create an intense chilling effect on individuals. Freedom of expression and press rights, access to information, rights of association, and religious liberty are all put at risk by these policies.
Although this draconian policy is still being debated, travelers who wish to avoid Bikkannavar’s privacy violating experience can find tips on security practices for travelers in the age of fascism here.