How Effective Is It To Vet The Social Media Activity Of Visa Applicants?

Some technology experts are skeptical that this strategy will bear results.

How Effective Is It To Vet The Social Media Activity Of Visa Applicants?
[Photo: Flickr user John Barker]

Technology company employees are skeptical that government pilot programs to scrutinize visa applicants’ social media activity will be effective at rooting out potential terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.


The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is experimenting with several ways to analyze such online activity as part of the visa review process. The update comes in the wake of criticism about the failure of government officials to review the social media activity of San Bernardino shooter Tashfeen Malik, who received a visa last year despite violent messages in her postings. Malik used a pseudonym and strict privacy settings, according to U.S. law enforcement, so her activity would not have been found under the new pilot programs.

DHS confirmed to ABC News that it already has three pilot programs in place to analyze social media, but that they aren’t widespread. Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee is said to be working on legislation that would require online information such as social media activity to be reviewed as part of the background check process for visa applicants.

ABC News claims that in the past, a secret government policy had prevented immigration officials from analyzing visa applicants’ social media activity. These pilot programs might signal a broader policy shift, in which background checks that involve social media tracking become routine.

It remains to be seen whether DHS would analyze private activity, as well as public posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other sites. Accessing private messages is difficult: The government would need to subpoena the social media site and wait for the request to be approved or denied. In an effort to be transparent, these companies in recent years have listed the number of information requests from government agencies that they receive.

Some technology experts are skeptical that this strategy will bear results. One tech company employee based in Washington, D.C., who requested anonymity, says it’s unlikely that DHS will gain much headway in the fight against terrorism by analyzing tweets and Facebook posts. “The idea that every single visa applicant would have a social media history scrubbed by DHS or the U.S. State Department in any language is unrealistic,” the person said, adding that Congress has floated many ideas in the wake of the attack–and not all of them are practical.

The employee cited the example of an individual from the Netherlands applying for a visa. “Imagine that this person had 8,000 protected posts on a locked Twitter account, and many thousands more messages on Facebook. First DHS would need a court order. If they get that, they’d have to find someone who speaks Dutch. That person would need to read through thousands of tweets and posts to make a determination.”


But others say that DHS could leverage cutting-edge technology to analyze these posts. “DHS needs a machine learning technology, supervised by humans, that takes inputs and determines whether a person is espousing messages of violence and should be flagged,” says Sean Gourley, a data scientist who has worked with various government agencies, including the Pentagon.

Gourley says government agencies are increasingly looking to Silicon Valley’s tech companies to help them analyze vast amounts of data. He added that it’s far cheaper for budget-constrained agencies to partner with startups than to hire a legacy technology vendor.

“Technology-wise, this goes far beyond the social media monitoring that is common among marketing agencies and brands,” says Gourley. “This is right at the edge of what’s possible.”

Balancing Civil Liberties And National Security

In recent years, social media companies have grappled with how to balance civil liberties, like freedom of speech, with national security concerns.

Of the various social media sites, Facebook has taken the most aggressive strategy for flagging and removing terror-related content. A Facebook spokesperson stresses that the company has “zero tolerance” for terrorists or terror propaganda.

“This is an ever-evolving landscape, and we will continue to engage regularly with NGOs, industry partners, academics, and government officials on how to keep Facebook, and other Internet services, free of terrorists or terror–promoting material,” the spokesperson says.


Meanwhile, Twitter declined to comment on whether it has been contacted by DHS about private individuals’ activity. Instead, the company issued the statement, “Violent threats and their promotion deserve no place on Twitter.”

About the author

Christina Farr is a San Francisco-based journalist specializing in health and technology. Before joining Fast Company, Christina worked as a reporter for VentureBeat, Reuters and KQED.