US Customs and Border Protection officers stand ready at Los Angeles International Airport.  Photo: Patrick T Fallon, Reuters
US Customs and Border Protection officers stand ready at Los Angeles International Airport. Photo: Patrick T Fallon, Reuters

According to a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) notice to be published on Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security will implement social-media vetting of Chinese visitors to the United States. Chinese applicants for US visas will be asked to provide the names of their social-media accounts for the CBP’s reference.

However, the move should not be misinterpreted as the beginning of a crackdown on Chinese immigration and tourism to the United States by President Donald Trump’s administration. In fact, a similar vetting system has been in place for visitors from countries included in the US Visa Waiver Program, which was rolled out in 2016 by the Barack Obama administration. Among the nationalities currently asked to provide their social-media information are US allies such as Australia and Japan, as well as European Union countries.

Importantly, submitting the names of one’s social-media accounts is an optional step that theoretically can be left blank “without a negative interpretation or inference”. Nevertheless, the move to vet US visitors’ social-media accounts has been criticized by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Access Now and the Internet Association – which represents Silicon Valley tech giants – for being invasive and for posing privacy risks to visitors to the United States.

“The choice to hand over this information is technically voluntary,” Nathan White, senior legislative manager of digital-rights organization Access Now, told Politico in a statement about the procedure last year. “But the process to enter the US is confusing, and it’s likely that most visitors will fill out the card completely rather than risk additional questions from intimidating, uniformed officers – the same officers who will decide which of your jokes are funny and which ones make you a security risk.”

The case of China leaves additional questions to be answered, particularly in terms of implementation and whether it’s a measure that will make it easier to implement more stringent procedures in the future. While a large majority of Chinese visitors to the United States are social-media users, few of them use platforms common outside China because of state censorship.

According to CBP spokeswoman Jennifer Evanitsky, Chinese visitors will be able to submit account names for “any platform they want”. Depending on the social-media platform and users’ privacy settings, this may not give the CBP access to any valuable information at all, since the visibility of shared posts and pictures is often limited to the user’s friends.

Concerns that such measures could be extended into more invasive policy in the future is not entirely unfounded. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly previously told the Homeland Security Committee at a hearing that visa applicants from the seven countries affected by Trump’s executive order on immigration may be asked to submit their social-media passwords at US embassies when applying for visas. While it’s very unlikely that such stringent procedures would be implemented for Chinese visitors at this point, it does underline that social media is viewed as an increasingly important tool to vet visa applicants.

The new policy of asking Chinese visa applicants for their social-media account names also raises questions about the future of visa policies toward Chinese nationals, and whether it should be viewed as a first step toward tougher visa requirements. In practice, however, it makes the information required by Chinese visitors more similar to that required of nationals of countries that have long represented important overseas tourism markets.

The new visa-application format for Chinese visitors to the United States is expected to be rolled out after a 60-day notice period.

This article was originally posted on Jing Travel.

Daniel Meesak

Excited about the prospects of a more interconnected world, Daniel is passionate about global travel and the opportunities it brings to brands and destinations throughout the world. Prior to joining Jing Daily, Daniel spent significant time in China conducting field research and later joined a consultancy firm focused on global Chinese travel. Coming from a finance background, he puts great emphasis on data and the business of travel.

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