Travelers from Visa Waiver Programme countries who fill out the online Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) document will now encounter a prompt that asks for their social media account information. The online questionnaire item lists the Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube platforms. An additional space is provided for applicants to enter relevant site account names. This change to the ESTA process was implemented by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in late 2016. At this point, providing responses to the social media question is noted on the form as “Optional” and spokespersons from CBP have said that individuals who do not provide account information will not be barred from entering the United States.
Security vs. Civil Liberties
The new policy is part of efforts by officials in Washington to improve the capability to identify and deny entry to individuals who have ties with or sympathy for terrorist groups. However, there has been pushback against the measure from various American civil liberties organizations. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Democracy and Technology have expressed fears that requesting social media account information opens the door for government agencies to access enormous quantities of online data, including very sensitive information about personal identity, community, beliefs, and opinions.
Michael W. Macleod-Ball, chief of staff for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office notes that “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.” And even though the questions are voluntary at this point, civil liberties advocates feel that most visitors will be intimidated into answering rather than risk being flagged as suspicious. Another concern is the possibility that countries with far fewer civil liberties protections than the United States will follow America’s example in demanding social media account information and in so doing put travelers at risk.
What Does the Policy Mean for ESTA Travelers?
Beyond concerns with the ESTA application, travelers from any country, regardless of ESTA or VWP status, should be aware that they may be asked for social media account information at a U.S. border control station. Refusal to provide the information may not result in denial of entry, but could be cause for further questioning and delays. Travelers should also note that Border Protection personnel may ask questions about social media use simply as a strategy to allow engagement in further dialogue with, and evaluation of, prospective entrants to the USA.
At this point, unless they have been engaged in criminal or other questionable activities, travelers with a U.S. ESTA have no need to worry about their social media use background. All visitors to the United States should realize that, although America has its shortcomings, it is still a world leader in terms of concern and protection for individual rights, liberties, and privacy. The possibility of harm or problems occurring to travelers using their ESTA visa in good faith is very low, and the new policies should not be a cause for being dishonest on the ESTA application or changing any travel plans.