- Immigration and border security officials across several countries are keeping an eye on social media trail and looking up online profiles
- Inconsistencies in information submitted to immigration authorities, connections to extremist organisations likely to get noticed
- In US, immigration officials can even check laptops, mobile phones
In addition, officials in some countries such as the US have the authority to search your electronic devices- be it your cell phone or laptop. A white paper issued by Berry Appleman & Leiden (BAL), a global law firm, states that 30,200 searches of electronic devices were conducted by US border officials in fiscal 2017, a spike of 58% over the previous year.
Contrast this with fiscal 2015, where there were only 8,500 cases of searches of electronic device.
This trend of increased searches continues. Up to March 31, which in the US constitutes the first six months of fiscal 2018, nearly 15,000 searches were conducted. “Although only a small percentage of travellers are likely to be so searched, those entering or exiting the US should be prepared in the event they are asked to unlock their cell phone or other device at the borders,” states BAL in its white paper ‘Social media and immigration’.
A basic search of electronic devices can be conducted even without any suspicion of criminal conduct. An advanced search, which entails confiscating the device and sending it to a forensic lab, is carried out when officers have a reasonable suspicion of criminal violation or concerns of national security.
BAL advises companies to have policies in place to better equip their employees to deal with such scenarios. “When people are prepared,they are more likely to respond to a late-night encounter after a long international flight with a border official in a calm and reasoned manner, making it less likely for a confrontation to escalate,” says Stephanie Lewin, senior counsel in BAL’s San Francisco office.
Under current US law, warrantless border searches are only allowed for data stored on the device itself. The border officials are not authorized to search information stored on the cloud through a traveller’s mobile device. Thus, travellers may take precautions such as limiting the number of devices they bring, or moving data on to the cloud and deleting sensitive information before they travel, states BAL.
In addition to physical searches of digital equipment, several countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa, UK and US are tracking social media footprints. Canadian consular officers assessing applications for permanent residency can take cognisance of any information that is publicly available, and applicants have received rejection letters based on anomalies that were detected.
“Under the principle of ‘procedural fairness’, if the officer finds something unfavourable online- such as the applicant’s social media account showing a number of photos with someone other than the ‘spouse’ listed in the application, the officer may call for an interview, giving the applicant a chance to explain,” illustrates the white paper.
“Employees applying for visas, work permits, or residency should expect that any details gathered from their social media platforms can be used as a basis to refuse their application,” says Brendan Kinne, director of global programs in BAL’s Houston office.
The report by this law firm is sprinkled with global illustrations. New Zealand’s immigration authorities publicly confirmed last September that their officials opened social media accounts using pseudonyms, to verify information relating to visa applicants. Hate speech and membership in banned organisations, knowledge of which can be gleaned by screening social media accounts, has led to visa denials in South Africa and UK. A US pastor was denied entry into South Africa owing to his extreme anti-gay rhetoric on social media.
Scrutiny of social media footprint is likely to get tighter and US may be the first mover in this regard. As reported earlier by TOI, in March the US State Department, proposed a broader plan to ask nearly all visa applicants for social media identifiers (say Twitter handles or Facebook profiles) used by them over the past five years (this plan does not include asking for passwords).
An advocate specialising in HR laws says that social media policies of India Inc typically debar an employee or a former employee from posting defamatory comments about the company, its employees or clients. Prohibiting posting of views on social media on say policies adopted by a country, could trample upon freedom of expression. “However, to make business travel smooth, some rethinking of social media policies is required,” he adds.
(This article was originally published in The Times of India)