If you are going to the US you use ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) to support your application. It requires personal information to see if you are eligible to travel. The online application collects biographic information and answers to important questions. Under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), it doesn’t guarantee you admission but it speeds up the process at the port of entry.
Social media and ESTA
Over the past week, the US government has introduced new ways of obtaining personal information. The online application now asks for your social media account names. It includes Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have said that they won’t deny entry to people who didn’t provide this information. Although this is currently still optional, it is only a matter of time before this is mandatory.
They have been consulting on this since summer and there has been a lot of criticism. Given that it has now appeared on the online form, opponents are furious. Currently there are no clear data protection guidelines on what is a mass invasion of privacy. Social media groups argue that it is a threat to freedom of expression. Various democratic think tanks suggested it would give government agencies too much power.
Why do they need your social media account names?
The government’s intentions are clear. They are collecting social media to track data about opinions, beliefs, identity and community. Certain people will be inevitable targets with Muslim communities being affected more than others. Although people currently have a choice to hand over the information, this programme is just the beginning.
Who is going to argue human rights with an intimidating airport officials? After several hours on an aeroplane, your priority is to get through the official process as quick as possible. Toiletries and medicines in clear bags, shoes, belts, full body scans. Security leaves you feeling dishevelled and without dignity at the best of times. So you’ll do and say anything to make the process as smooth as possible.
They have justified this new policy as a way of identify potential threats. They are looking to identify and deny entry to people who have links to terrorism. The more information they have about an individual, the better the chances of catching extremists. They already scan limited amounts of social media posts but this would huge.
Who else will follow suit?
People need to travel for business, family and pleasure and in 2015 alone, the US had 77.5 million foreign visitors. The quantity of social media information the government will collect is staggering. Commentators suggest that it will be one of the largest government controlled databases of its kind.
Whether you agree with the US government’s policy or not, we all worry about non-official use of our data. The US is a supposed democratic and a ‘free’ society. But if it can demand our Facebook friends list to decide whether we are a security risk, what happens if this happens elsewhere? For instance, you might need to travel to a country where homosexuality is illegal. If officials spot a pattern of supporting gay rights, regardless of your sexuality, it could put your safety at risk.