International travelers waiting in line at US Customs and Border Protection. Visitors to the US could soon be asked to disclose their social media account information. Image Credit: Getty images

WASHINGTON: The federal government has proposed adding a line to forms filled out by visitors to the United States that would ask them to voluntarily disclose their social media accounts, a step that it said would help in screening for ties to terrorism.

Visitors entering the country under the Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens of some countries to visit up to 90 days without a visa, would not be required to list their social media accounts, and the forms would not ask for passwords. But Customs and Border Protection, which announced the proposal last week in the Federal Register, said the social media information would give it extra investigative tools.

“Collecting social media data will enhance the existing investigative process and provide DHS greater clarity and visibility to possible nefarious activity,” the border agency said, referring to the Department of Homeland Security, its parent organisation.

The proposal comes after Congress passed legislation last year to add restrictions to the Visa Waiver Program. The legislation was a response to the November terrorist attacks in Paris, which led to fears that European-born or naturalised citizens with terrorist ties could enter the United States without being properly vetted.

Legislation pending in Congress would require the Department of Homeland Security to collect social media information from foreign visitors. The bills were spurred by the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, in December. The couple who carried out the assault had exchanged private messages online discussing their commitment to jihad and martyrdom, law enforcement officials said, but they did not post any public messages about their plans.

Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., who has introduced one of the bills requiring social media information, called the Customs and Border Protection proposal “lame.”

“Voluntary disclosure won’t keep anyone safe,” Buchanan said. “If we want to win on the digital battlefield, mandatory screening is required.”

Buchanan’s bill would direct the Department of Homeland Security to review all public records, including Facebook and other forms of social media, before admitting foreign travellers.

The department said that while it does not consistently examine social media accounts of applicants for visas or immigration, it has a list of nearly three dozen situations in which social media can be examined to screen applicants.

Four pilot projects are underway in the department to examine the use of social media among applicants for immigration benefits. One of the projects, which began in December and runs through this month, screens the social media accounts of applicants for so-called fiance visas, the programme under which one of the San Bernardino attackers entered the United States.

— New York Times News Service