Representatives from both political parties urged officials from the State Department and Department of Homeland Security to begin investigating social media as part of the screening process for travelers seeking entry to the United States on Thursday, during hearings in which lawmakers expressed concern that federal law enforcement and border security authorities aren’t doing enough to protect Americans from terrorist attacks.
The hearings, prompted by terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, focused on social media in part because of reports that immigration authorities failed to notice and flag evidence that one of the San Bernardino shooters, Tashfeen Malik, had posted statements of support for radical Islamism online, including statements endorsing terrorism as part of “jihad” or holy war.
Malik and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, had communicated privately online about their commitment to jihad through a messaging platform, emails, and a private dating site, according to the FBI; the messages were not posted on social media sites. Nonetheless, lawmakers pointed out that the current screening process wouldn’t detect similar statements on sites like Facebook or Twitter, which are semi-public and more accessible.
Lawmakers noted that the DHS had decided not to screen the social media accounts of visa applicants over concerns about privacy and civil liberties. Commenting on this policy, a number of legal analysts have pointed out that non-U.S. citizens are not entitled to the same legal protections as U.S. citizens.
However DHS officials testifying at the hearing said there was no official policy preventing the use of social media for screening visa applicants, and is working to implement more comprehensive social media screening.In a statement published online, the DHS asserted: “The U.S. government already employs social media vetting in certain immigration benefits programs. The working group is committed to expanding use of social media vetting and is examining appropriate opportunities, in conjunction with interagency screening partners, to do so across the range of visa programs, including the K-1 [spouse visa] program.”