The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced an amendment to its social media collection policy on non-citizens in late September. On Wednesday, the policy went into effect, drawing criticism from internet freedom groups and immigrants alike.
The policy listed in the Federal Register states that "social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information and search results" will be collected and stored in the "Alien File," a dossier of information that immigration services hold indefinitely on every non-citizen in the United States.
Sophia Cope, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the announcement doesn't represent any change to existing policy.
"The notice doesn't include, as far as we can tell, any new authorizations for collection," Cope said, "but it does explain, at least for immigrants, what DHS is officially doing with the data."
This was corroborated by DHS spokesperson Joanne Talbot, who told Voice of America, "This amendment does not represent a new policy. DHS, in its law-enforcement and immigration-process capacity, has and continues to monitor publicly available social media to protect the homeland."
The expansion of social media collection policy began during Barack Obama's second term. The FBI found private Facebook messages from the San Bernardino attackers declaring their extremist inclinations several years before their arrival in the U.S., prompting policymakers on both sides of the aisle to ramp up the surveillance of noncitizens' social media.
"There has been an expansion starting in 2010 and then all the way through to this year, but the bulk of the expansion happened during Obama," Cope said.
Michael S. Overing, a USC professor and expert on censorship and internet law, told Annenberg Media that public concern over the DHS' disclosure was not overblown.
"It really ought to have everybody up in arms, because these are truly intrusive violations of privacy. Post-9/11, everything becomes fair game — aggregating information becomes a national pastime," he said.
Overing said the PATRIOT Act was a forebear to surveillance overreach in the U.S. The controversial 2001 bill increased the collection capabilities of law enforcement agencies in order to prevent terrorism in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks.
Both Republican and Democrats supported the bill. Joe Biden, a senator at the time declared during debate on the floor: "The FBI could get a wiretap to investigate the mafia, but they could not get one to investigate terrorists. To put it bluntly, that was crazy! What's good for the mob should be good for terrorists."
16 years post-PATRIOT Act, young people still aren't aware of the potential for wayward government surveillance, Overing said.
"Millennials in particular, they [think], I've done nothing wrong therefore how bad can it be? What's the problem? … The reality is that information is going to be kept, it's going to be maintained and it's going to be used."
Overing cited the lack of clear directives for current collection policy as one of his greatest concerns.
"You're not going to know it's been used against you in the future from the standpoint of applying for a visa or being allowed to travel to a particular country, or not getting a job."
Gaby Toledo, a senior at USC and a permanent resident of the U.S., is concerned by the potential for social media posts to be misconstrued.
"A lot of [it] is manipulated," she said. "I don't think you could track people and then use that to define them, and put them at high risk."
Toledo said she believes the strict policies are ignoring homegrown threats, and targeting immigrants unfairly.
"I don't think being born in a certain place defines you differently than anyone else. What about white supremacists? Domestic terror and mass shootings? These laws are just creating more tensions."