The Department of Homeland Security said today it plans to expand social media vetting when it comes to U.S. visa applicants, following an ABC News report in which critics said the department previously refused to do so out of fear of a public relations backlash over privacy.
“The U.S. government already employs social media vetting in certain immigration benefits programs,” the DHS said in a “Fact Sheet” published online. “The working group is committed to expanding use of social media vetting and is examining appropriate opportunities, in conjunction with interagency screening partners, to do so across the range of visa programs, including the K-1 program.”
The K-1 program, also known as the fiancé visa program, was the type used by San Bernardino shooter Tashfeen Malik to enter the country last July – one of over 40,000 people to do so using a K-1 in 2014.
Earlier this week ABC News revealed a secret policy within the DHS that for the most part kept officials from looking at publicly-posted social media of visa applicants out of concerns about privacy and civil liberties. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., speculated that if investigators had looked at Malik’s social media postings, they may have stopped her from entering the country and therefor averted the deadly attack. FBI Director James Comey said Wednesday that Malik and her husband-turned-accomplice Syed Rizwan Farook did communicate over social media about jihad and martyrdom, but they did so through private, direct messages that wouldn’t be included in public posts.
A small number of public posts recovered by ABC News from a Facebook account under a different name that authorities believed was used by Malik do not show particularly incendiary language, but one gives a vague warning to "coconut Muslims," a derogatory term sometimes applied to pro-Western Muslims.
John Cohen, a former acting under-secretary at DHS for intelligence and analysis, said in the original ABC News report that in 2014 immigration authorities sought to have senior officials grant them the authority to include social media checks into their vetting process, but privacy and civil liberty officials were reluctant to support those efforts.
“The primary concern was that it would be viewed negatively if it was disclosed publicly and there were concerns that it would be embarrassing,” Cohen said, especially in the anti-surveillance climate that followed the disclosures by National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Cohen is now a national security consultant for ABC News.
A spokesperson for the DHS told ABC News for its original report that the department currently has three pilot programs that are exploring the potential use of social media in the vetting process.
“The Department will continue to ensure that any use of social media in its vetting program is consistent with current law and appropriately takes into account civil rights and civil liberties and privacy protections,” the spokesperson said for the original report.
This report has been updated.