Raising concern about the violations of privacy occurring in the name of U.S. border security, a coalition of consumer rights groups on Tuesday launched a new campaign opposing the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) so-called "extreme vetting" practice that requires travelers to reveal their social media passwords.
"Asking people to hand over the passwords to their accounts will make all of us less safe, not more safe." —Evan Greer, Fight for the Future
"Even if you support 'extreme vetting,' password for entry is an extremely bad idea that sacrifices privacy and digital security for political posturing and 'security theater,'" said Nathan White, senior legislative director at Access Now, one of the 29 organizations launching the 'Fly Don't Spy' campaign.
"We're launching this campaign today to make it clear to Secretary John Kelly that we will not tolerate discrimination or a reckless disregard for privacy and cybersecurity," White added, inviting others to include their name on a petition directed at the DHS chief.
The campaign was launched the same day that Kelly gave a speech in Washington, D.C. defending his tactics. Since his confirmation, Kelly has overseen implementation of President Donald Trump's controversial immigration policies, which include the currently-defunct ban on individuals from majority-Muslim nations, the mass-deportation of immigrants, and stepped-up border security which many say unfairly targets Muslim travelers.
According to the right-leaning Washington Times, Kelly also accused the Obama administration of "politically meddling" in a way that "discouraged" DHS employees from carrying out their jobs. Further, he reportedly "said he and President Trump have made a decision to free up agents to enforce the laws as written, and he said he and his department won't apologize for that."
Rights groups are particularly concerned about a plan that would make certain travelers "disclose their social media handles and passwords and answer questions about ideology as a condition of admission to the country," Jameel Jaffer, founding director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, wrote last week.
"The aim," Jaffer continued, "is to empower consular and border officials to ensure that would-be visitors to the United States embrace American values, a concept that the Trump administration has not defined."
Investing consular and border officials with the authority to vet visitors for disfavored political and religious beliefs is ill-advised. The exclusions will be capricious and discriminatory. They will have a chilling effect on speech and inquiry, both outside and within the United States. Foreign nationals who are contemplating visiting the United States will hesitate to write things that border agents might misinterpret, or to explore ideas online that border agents might view with suspicion. Americans can’t ultimately be excluded for declining to answer border agents’ questions about their beliefs, but Americans considering overseas travel may nonetheless self-censor for similar reasons.
Notably, Kelly defended the idea, telling senators on the Homeland Security committee recently, "If [travellers] don't cooperate...they can go back."
"Asking people to hand over the passwords to their accounts will make all of us less safe, not more safe," said Evan Greer, campaign director at Fight for the Future, another member of the Fly Don't Spy coalition.
"Not only does it undermine our basic right to privacy and have a chilling effect on free speech," she continued, "but it will inevitably make our information more vulnerable to hackers, identity thieves, and stalkers. Targeting people for this type of surveillance based on their religion or country of origin is clearly a form of discrimination."