U.S. to look at social media history of visa applicants

A DHS sign at Ronald Reagan International Airport after the San Bernardino shooting. Photo credit: Andrew Harrer

In the aftermath of the deadly mass shooting in San Bernardino, CA, after it was revealed that one of the perpetrators advocated jihad in her posts and comments on Facebook, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is working on a new plan to scrutinize the social media posts and comments of people applying for entry into the United States.

The plan was first revealed to the Wall Street Journal, which said the homeland security agency previously looked at social media postings "intermittently and as part of three pilot programs" which began earlier this year. The new plan would mark the first formally sanctioned probe by the DHS - which formed in the aftermath of 9/11 to counter potential domestic threats to the United States - into the digital footprint of visa applicants.

Standard visa applications are handled by the U.S. Department of State, but the DHS frequently cooperates with the State Department in processing visas, and probes certain applications if they show any red flags, or if the applicant is traveling from a volatile nation which may pose national security concerns.

According to a person with knowledge of the DHS plan, current pilot programs do not take into account all social media posts, meaning dragnet data collection is not currently a factor for those applying for a U.S. visa. But the new plan could significantly retool existing DHS programs, in response to growing national concern over threats of terror and violence.

The move by the DHS comes in direct response to the San Bernardino shootings, in which 14 people died and 21 were injured.

The perpetrators of the attack were 28-year-old Syed Farook and 29-year-old Tashfeen Malik. Farook was an American citizen born in Chicago, IL, but his accomplice and wife, Tashfeen Malik, first moved to the United States in 2014 from Pakistan on a K-1 fiancée visa.

Investigators in the San Bernardino shooting are heavily probing the digital footprint of Farook and Malik. The investigation has focused largely on Facebook history, browsing history, and physical contents of Farook and Malik's computer hard drives. Initial investigations found evidence of radicalization in Malik's social media history, including a pledge to Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on the day of the shooting.

But according to law enforcement officials, Malik's Facebook posts would not have been caught by any potential government probe, since she used a pseudonym and extensive privacy controls which only shared her radicalized posts with a small group of people.

As the Internet becomes increasingly pervasive, many U.S. agencies are moving forward with plans to probe deeper into social media and online history. The San Bernardino shooting is the first major incident in recent years where a primary aspect of the law enforcement investigation has focused on metadata and digital data collection.

But recent attempts by investigators have hit a roadblock, as numerous probes into the data of the San Bernardino shooters have yielded nothing useful to the investigation.

Source: Wall Street Journal

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