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ACLU demands records of social media surveillance under Trump

An apparent spike in the government’s surveillance of Twitter, Facebook and other social media accounts is raising privacy concerns.
by Daniella Silva /
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The government is monitoring immigrants via Facebook, among other social networks.Jason Alden / Bloomberg via Getty file

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The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday demanded records related to social media surveillance of immigrants and U.S. citizens under the Trump administration, saying recent tactics raise “serious concerns” for people’s privacy.

“Social media surveillance is not entirely new, but it appears that we’re seeing a dramatic spike in the federal government’s use of social media surveillance,” Hugh Handeyside, a senior attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project, told NBC News.

The group filed a Freedom of Information Act request to seven government agencies on Thursday seeking to discover how the administration is collecting and using content from Twitter, Facebook and other social media accounts.

The government’s use of these kinds of surveillance tactics has raised concerns over possible racial and religious discrimination, privacy issues and the potential “chilling effect” it could have on free speech if people knew they were being watched.

Handeyside added that there was concern that such surveillance was “targeted overwhelmingly at racial and religious minority communities.”

Handeyside noted several proposals by the administration that he said would increase surveillance and posed “serious concerns” over privacy, free speech and possible discrimination.

In late March, the State Department announced a proposal that would create a list of social media platforms and require millions of visa applicants “to provide any identifiers used by applicants for those platforms during the five years preceding the date of application,” according to the proposal published in the Federal Register.

“The State Department has issued several notices disclosing that it intends to gather social media identifiers from individuals seeking to visit or immigrate to the U.S. — the scope of those notices really has expanded gathering information from pretty much everyone who wants to come to the U.S., so that’s over 14 million people,” Handeyside said.

He also pointed to a proposal by Immigration and Customs Enforcement for a contract worth about $100 million to track social media behavior “for immigration enforcement purposes.”

Handeyside also noted the Department of Homeland Security’s move last year to collect the “social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information and search results” of all immigrants looking to enter the country, as well as reports that the FBI is setting up a task force to monitor social media in the wake of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“We’re increasingly concerned about this. I think it warrants a concerted effort to pull back the curtain on what the consequences are and what tools it’s using,” he said.

“They’re not just watching you," Handeyside said. "This kind of social media surveillance has consequences. The FBI and DHS are, it appears, using social media surveillance for investigative purpose."

Following the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, lawmakers became increasingly concerned about the use of social media by supporters of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State. Tashfeen Malik, one of the attackers, expressed support for violent jihad in direct, private messages on social media, officials have said, before she was given a visa to come to the United States.

But former FBI Director James Comey said in Dec. 2015 that the shooters did not post public jihadist messages on Facebook, in comments intended to resolve confusion over whether Malik had posted extremist messages on a public-facing account that officials could have seen when she applied for a visa.

The seven government agencies subject to the FOIA request are the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the State Department.

The seven government agencies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Adam Schwartz, a senior attorney with the civil liberties team of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for free speech online and works against online surveillance of immigrants and potential visitors, said that while social media surveillance had been done under President Barack Obama in an “episodic manner,” the current administration has been "expanding" these efforts.

Schwartz also questioned the effectiveness of such tactics.

“The things people say on social media are notoriously difficult to interpret,” he said.

César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, an associate professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law who writes about the convergence of criminal and immigration law, said that increased social media surveillance can change how people conduct themselves online.

“I think that in and of itself creates a fear among immigrants and among prospective immigrants if what they say on social media may come back to haunt them, and that might have chilling effect on the way they go about their lives online,” he said.

García Hernández said that much was still unclear about just how much the administration has already increased its social media surveillance because the process “sorely lacks in transparency and therefore the administration’s rhetoric in many ways speaks much louder than what’s actually happening behind the scenes.”

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