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The U.S. government could soon ask visa applicants to share their social media profiles

It’s not final, but the State Department effort could affect 65,000 travelers each year.

Border Force At Work At UK Ports Matt Cardy / Getty

The Trump administration could soon begin asking visa applicants who it fears are security threats to provide a list of all social media accounts they have used within the past five years.

About two months after President Donald Trump signed an executive order promising “extreme vetting” for foreign travelers and refugees, the State Department said in a public notice — published quietly Thursday — that it needed social media account information so that it can conduct a “more rigorous evaluation” of certain high-risk visa applicants.

The rules aren’t final, and the government stressed that visa applicants who don’t or can’t provide the data won’t always be turned away from the United States. They also said they would not ask for passwords or otherwise “attempt to subvert any privacy controls the applicants may have implemented.”

Still, if approved after a period of public comment, the State Department estimates the change would affect about 65,000 visa applicants each year. Along with social media data, these visa applicants also would have to provide more data, such as the countries they visited in the previous 15 years and the phone numbers or email addresses they’ve used over the last five years.

It’s hardly the first time the government has tried to scrutinize foreigners’ social media accounts in an attempt to improve U.S. national security. Months after the 2015 attack in San Bernardino, Calif., lawmakers called on another agency, the Department of Homeland Security, to commit more resources toward monitoring sites like Facebook and Twitter for potential threats.

It was under Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, that the agency in December began collecting social media identifiers from travelers arriving on a different visa program. At the time, DHS stressed it was optional: Foreign visitors didn’t have to provide their user names on social sites in order to enter the United States. Still, tech giants and privacy hawks balked at the idea, arguing it put great pressure on travelers to share their information and threatened free expression.

Under Trump, DHS has taken it a step further: The agency’s new leader, Secretary John Kelly, told lawmakers in February that the government contemplated whether to demand foreigners’ social-media passwords. “If they don't want to cooperate,” Kelly said at the time, “then you don't come in.”

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