Pando

Welcome to the new McCarthyism, and the UnAmerican Tweets Committee

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on February 24, 2016

From The Security Desk

If I weren’t totally done with social media, I guess I am now.

According to the New York Times, the Department of Homeland Security is developing tools to scour the social media profiles to visitors and visa applicants before they are allowed to enter the US.

According to the Times:

After the December mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., “we saw that our efforts are not as robust as they need to be,” Francis X. Taylor, under secretary for intelligence and analysis, the top counterterrorism official at the Department of Homeland Security, said at a congressional hearing.

The news follows pressure from lawmakers including Senator John McCain for immigration officials to make better use of social media information when determining who should be allowed into the country. Already social media information has been used when deciding the fate of Syrian refugees; it has also been used occasionally for processing regular visa applications, and entries under the Visa Waiver Program.

McCain’s bill, and the new software, would allow the current manual checking of some applicants to be expanded to algorithmic social media vetting for all visa applicants.

Speaking as someone who is currently working in the US on a visa, and who can only remain here so long as that visa continues to be renewed, the news causes me no small amount of consternation.

Like with all proposals designed to Keep Us Safe, we’re assured the social media vetting will only cause problems for those with Something To Hide. Terrorists, ISIS supporters, criminals posing as refugees… y’know, evil doers.

But we’ve already seen examples of travellers temporarily banned from the country because they’ve mistakenly been added to watchlists, or because they have tweeted jokes about getting drunk, or because they’ve talked about (but not been convicted of) using drugs.

Given that precedent you’d have to be an idiot to believe the new search tools won’t be used to flag anyone who has ever tweeted something stupid about drunken bad behavior, or taking drugs, or anything which might be considered tacit support of America’s enemies. That last one in covers a lot of people, especially as the world watches Trump edging closer to the White House. If he actually makes it through the doors, and this legislation has passed, god help us all.

Then there’s the difficulty for machines in determining jokes, sarcasm or irony. As a former DHS assistant secretary told the Times:

David Heyman, a former assistant secretary of Homeland Security for policy, agrees. “You have to be careful how you design the proposal to screen people,” he said. “Artificial intelligence and algorithms have a poor ability to discern sarcasm or parody."

I’ve written before about people getting blocked from the Visa Waiver Program for making dumb twitter jokes. That was likely frustrating to the applicants, but not life-changingly so -- they could always apply for a full visa and would almost certainly be approved, absent any other flags.  Perhaps shortsightedly, I’ve even argued that people who get denied Visa Waivers for tweeting plans to “destroy America” right before getting on a plane probably deserved the inconvenience of having to line up at an embassy for a few hours.

But this latest development makes it possible the US government will permanently deny a full visa application based on comments which could later prove to have been a joke. That’s no longer a laughing matter.  In fact, the proposal comes chillingly close to McCarthyism, especially when it comes to visa renewals of workers (including, of course, journalists) already employed in the US, or seeking employment. Where’s the line between dissent and being a risk to security? Can we trust an algorithm to draw it?

Last year I wrote about how I quit twitter once and for all, having grown tired of the noise and constant fights. That decision had nothing to do with preserving my visa status, but now it seems remarkably prescient, and lucky.

If you’re currently on a US visa, or are considering applying for one, this is probably the time to decide what’s more important: your career, or your ability to retweet dumb memes.  If I hadn’t already quit, I’d likely be reaching for the delete button. Better to be safe than sorry, right? Welcome to the new McCarthyism, and the UnAmerican Tweets Committee.