US Citizenship and Immigration officers can now use fake social media accounts to surveil foreigners seeking visas and citizenship, even after years of US lawmakers blasting foreign rivals for supposedly doing the same.
Officers have until recently been banned from creating fictitious profiles, but a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) privacy review dated July 2019 but posted online on Friday has reversed that ban. According to the review, officers with the department’s Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate can keep an eye on the social media profiles of suspicious visa applicants, as they decide who to allow entry to.
Twitter told AP that it would evaluate the DHS proposal, while Facebook has yet to comment. Yet, the move seems to directly contradict the policies of both social media giants, which explicitly ban impersonation on their platforms. Both platforms just recently shut down more than 200,000 “fake accounts,” supposedly operated by the Chinese government to discredit the Hong Kong protest movement.
Moreover, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents were caught earlier this year using fake Facebook profiles to catch illegal immigrants enroling in the University of Farmington, a fictitious university set up by the agency to entrap people committing immigration fraud, including nearly 600 Indian students.
Kudos to the DHS, it has at least given a nod towards privacy, with agents not allowed to interact with the profiles they monitor, and are forbidden from “friending” or “following” them. They are therefore restricted to combing through the information that these people choose to make public.
However, no matter how careful the DHS is, the fact remains that setting up fake accounts in the first place is forbidden by Facebook and Twitter. Whether they will acquiesce to the demands of the government in this case is an open question. To date, the Silicon Valley tech giants have had a testy relationship with the current administration, with Donald Trump lambasting the platforms for their supposed anti-conservative bias.
The tech titans have also been accused by both parties of overbearing data collection and monitoring of users, particularly in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal last year.
‘US bots’ unleashed?
That a government agency would advocate the use of fake accounts is shockingly ironic, given the noise that American lawmakers have raised over the proliferation of similar fakes from their adversaries. In a pair of hearings last year, Democrats grilled Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg over the alleged spread of ‘misinformation’ by Russian accounts during the 2016 election in the US. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey also faced a similar line of questioning later last year, at a Senate hearing into foreign election interference, during which he attempted to win over lawmakers from both parties by trumpeting his platform’s anti-Russian crackdown since 2016.
Since the hearings, both platforms have embarked on sporadic purges of accounts they say were faked by Russia, China, and Iran. Facebook uses the term “co-ordinated inauthentic activity” to justify its crackdows, while Twitter has also targeted “inauthentic accounts” in its clearouts.
So, with America’s law enforcement agencies getting into the business of inauthentic activity, will there be any congressional hearings or mass purges of DHS-linked accounts? Unlikely. Facebook determines what constitutes “inauthentic activity” by liaising with certain groups like the Atlantic Council (AC), a NATO-backed think tank funded by the US government and a slew of arms manufacturers. Twitter has also offered money to the AC to fund “research” into flimsy claims of Russian election-meddling.
While politicians on both sides of the aisle pilloried Facebook for its data-harvesting practices last year, they have never shied away from using these data troves themselves. After Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik murdered 14 people in a shooting rampage in San Bernardino in 2015, legislation authorizing social media checks for foreigners seeking US visas enjoyed bipartisan support.
Four years later, the Trump administration upped the ante, with the State Department announcing in June that all applicants for US visas will have to submit their social media usernames and five years’ worth of email addresses for scrutiny. The tightening-up of rules has already seen at least one Palestinian student barred from entry, for posts containing “political points of view that oppose the US.”
The view from Washington was perhaps best summed up at Dorsey’s hearing by Republican Senator Tom Cotton (Arizona). After asking Dorsey whether he believed that the US should “remain the world’s dominant global superpower,” Cotton went on to suggest that Facebook and Twitter should actively work on behalf of the US government, and not act as “even-handed or neutral arbiters.”
Allowing a few fakes here and there might be the price these companies pay to keep Washington’s favor – for now.
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