Horror! ICE to track visa-holders' social media posts

So we want to do a better job vetting visa-holders and applicants from certain countries to prevent terrorists and extremists from entering the United States.  A practical, commonsense precaution, right?

For practical people with common sense, yes.  But then, there are the media and those who don't think we should try very hard to keep these undesirables out of the country.  They see such a measure as draconian and overkill.  Their attitude: Better to allow a few terrorists to slip through the cracks than do everything possible to keep U.S. citizens safe in their own country.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is asking tech companies to develop software that will allow the government to track the social media postings of visa-holders from some Muslim countries.  Is this discrimination, that we vet some people from terrorist countries more thoroughly than others? 


Speaking to a room of information-technology contractors, hosted by the Government Technology & Services Coalition, Louis Rodi, deputy assistant director of ICE Homeland Security Investigations' National Security Program, said the agency needs a tool equipped with "risk-based matrices" to predict dangers posed by visa holders, with the social media of those considered a threat under continuous surveillance throughout their stay in the U.S.

"We have millions and millions and millions of people coming every year, and subsequently departing, so we have to be smart about it," said Rodi to a room of representatives from companies like Microsoft, Accenture, Deloitte and Motorola Solutions. "And I'm sure there are tools out there that can help."

For this targeted group of visa holders, ICE's online monitoring of public social media posts would be large-scale and non-stop. "Everything we're dealing with is in bulk, so we need batch-vetting capabilities for any of the processes that we have," said Rodi. Alysa Erichs, ICE Homeland Security Investigations' acting deputy association director for information management, told attendees that ICE hopes to get automated notifications about any visa holders' social media activity that could "ping us as a potential alert."

ICE spokeswoman Carissa Cutrell stressed to ProPublica that the Department of Homeland Security has not actually begun building any such program. "The request for information on this initiative was simply that — an opportunity to gather information from industry professionals and other government agencies on current technological capabilities to determine the best way forward," Cutrell wrote in an email. The program would require clearance from numerous DHS units, including the Privacy Office and the Principal Legal Advisor, before it could be implemented, according to a federal official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The fact is, there is a large group of people who want us to treat visitors coming to the U.S. from countries where terrorism is rampant the exact same way we treat people coming here from, let's say, Scotland. 


The announcement of the program, later named "Visa Lifecycle Vetting," spurred backlash from civil liberty groups and immigrants. ProPublica notes that, taken in conjunction with Trump's calls for "extreme vetting" and his campaign proposal for a Muslim ban, there is concern it could be discriminatory toward Muslim visa holders. Acting deputy association director for information management at ICE Homeland Security Investigations, Alysa Erichs, said the goal is to have "automated notifications about any visa holders' social media activity that could 'ping us as a potential alert.'" 

  • But, but, but: According to Alvaro Bedoya, the executive director of Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy and Technology, ICE is "building a dangerously broad tool that could be used to justify excluding, or deporting, almost anyone." 
  • A group of engineers, computer scientists, and other academics wrote to acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke of their "grave concerns" about the program, saying it would likely be "inaccurate and biased.

Are you getting this?  What kind of a vetting program would it be if we didn't use it to to "justify excluding, or deporting, almost anyone"?  Isn't that the point of vetting in the first place?  Madness.

I don't know how many terrorist attacks a program like this could foil.  But even if it's just one, isn't it worth it?  The fact is, there is a widespread, unstated belief among many of these activists that a certain number of casualties from terrorist attacks are acceptable if we adopt policies that make us feel good about how generous and welcoming we are to visitors and refugees.  After all, there's little chance they would die in an attack.  Those who do suffer or die in attack are just unlucky. 

I believe that this attitude was behind the policies of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.  They were too cowardly to come out in the open and say what they believe.  So they reassure us that we're just as safe without "extreme vetting" as we are with it.

I think most Americans would disagree.

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