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U.S. Pushes Proposal To Access Travelers' Social Media Accounts


Citizens of nearly 40 countries are allowed to visit the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program. It's easier to obtain than a formal visa, but visitors still have to provide personal information to the Department of Homeland Security. The program came under a great deal of scrutiny after the terror attacks in Paris. One of the Islamic State operatives in those attacks came through Belgium, which participates in the program.

If a government proposal goes through, there might be a new line on the form that asks people who want to enter the United States to list their social media accounts. John Cohen is a former counterterrorism coordinator at Homeland Security and an ABC contributor. He joins us from somewhere in Maryland. Thanks for being with us.

JOHN COHEN: It's nice to be with you.

SIMON: What's the idea behind this?

COHEN: Well, over the last several years, we have learned an awful lot about individuals who represent a threat to this country. And one of the behaviors that we have seen through this analysis is that these people tend to be extensive social media users. So what immigration authorities have been seeking to do for several years is to expand the use of social media as they vet people prior to their traveling to this country or prior to their being provided immigration benefits.

SIMON: But as I understand it, this is just a request. It would be voluntary.

COHEN: In the process, yes, it would be a voluntary request. However, there's a tendency that if one refuses to provide information as part of the application process, that application will receive additional scrutiny.

SIMON: It sounds like you're suggesting DHS is just creating another opportunity for someone to make a mistake that would guide people to discover something.

COHEN: That's part of it, but it's been a top priority for the department over the last several years to expand the information that they can use to make an informed decision about somebody seeking to travel here, whether it's through refugee process or whether through - it's the visa process or through some other type of immigration benefit. And because social media usage is such a huge part of our day-to-day lives now, it just makes total sense that it would be one of the data sets that we would look at as we are vetting people.

SIMON: Why wasn't this done before? Any idea? You were there in DHS.

COHEN: Well, it's - it is somewhat of a complicated issue. You have to be concerned about privacy and civil liberties implications. Before the department will make a decision to expand a vetting process, they work closely with privacy and civil liberties officials to make sure that, at the same time, security objectives are being met, that privacy and civil liberties rights are being protected, as well.

Secondly, there are some technology and resource implications. If you are expanding the data that has to be examined, you are expanding the resources that are needed to do that work. So the department's been working to address the technological, the policy and the resource issues associated with expanding the vetting process to include examination of social media.

SIMON: Well - and let me raise the civil liberties question with you because you're kind of a member of the news media now. What if somebody just posts a message on their Facebook page saying, I heard about a drone attack. I don't like U.S. foreign policy.

COHEN: Well, you've hit on one of the major challenges facing law enforcement and those involved in, you know, this type of work.

SIMON: I mean, members of Congress say that, and any citizen of the U.S. is free to say that.

COHEN: That's right, and the goal of this is not to police thought. It's to identify and prevent acts of violence. So as we are expanding the types of information that we are looking at, we have to be very careful to ensure that First Amendment-protected free speech is allowed, you know, and it's supported. But at the same time, we are taking steps to ensure that people who may be inspired by extremist ideologies and prepared to carry out violence on its behalf are stopped before they can do so.

So someone's statement, you know, on Facebook or on a social media platform is not in itself a reason to take any type of law enforcement action or some type of action to restrict travel or prohibit an immigration benefit being provided. It's just one piece of the puzzle that's looked at and needs to be looked at in conjunction with a whole host of other factors before a decision is made.

SIMON: John Cohen is a former counterterrorism coordinator at Homeland Security. Thanks so much for being with us.

COHEN: Pleasure being with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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