International travelers looking to visit the United States via the visa-waiver program are now being asked to include information on their online presence, according to a report in Politico. The recently updated Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) form, a required component of the visa-waiver application, now includes a section for travelers to provide their user names for various social media accounts, including Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. While giving the information is technically optional, the change has some civil rights groups and privacy advocates concerned.
“There are very few rules about how that information is being collected, maintained, [and] disseminated to other agencies, and there are no guidelines about limiting the government’s use of that information,” Michael W. Macleod-Ball, chief of staff for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office, told Politico.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection argued that the policy is designed to help “identify potential threats,” but the ACLU worries that Arab and Muslim travelers will be unfairly scrutinized under the new system. While the U.S. has said it won’t deny entry to those who don’t provide social media information, critics expect many travelers will automatically fill in all the blanks in hopes of getting through the customs process as quickly as possible.
“The process to enter the U.S. is confusing, and it’s likely that most visitors will fill out the card completely rather than risk additional questions from intimidating, uniformed officers,” said Nation White, senior legislative manager at digital rights group Access Now.
The Internet Association, another organization that opposes the policy, worries that the change could set a dangerous precedent. “Democratic and non-democratic countries — including those without the United States’ due process protections — will now believe they are more warranted in demanding social media information from visitors that could jeopardize visitors’ safety,” said Abigail Slater, general counsel for the Internet Association.
38 countries are included in the visa-waiver program, which allows foreign citizens to visit the United States for up to 90 days without applying for a visa.