Tech, advocacy groups slam DHS call to demand foreign travelers' passwords

Tech, advocacy groups slam DHS call to demand foreign travelers' passwords
© Greg Nash

Technology advocacy groups and trade associations representing companies such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft criticized a suggestion from the head of the Department of Homeland Security that foreign nationals should provide social media passwords to enter the U.S.

“This proposal would enable border officials to invade people’s privacy by examining years of private emails, texts, and messages,” the groups wrote in a letter on Tuesday. "It would expose travelers and everyone in their social networks, including potentially millions of U.S. citizens, to excessive, unjustified scrutiny.”

The letter rejecting collecting non-citizen’s social media passwords was prompted by Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly’s comments during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing.

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Kelly told members of the Committee that DHS is “looking at some enhanced or some additional screening.”

"We may want to get on their social media, with passwords. It's very hard to truly vet these people in these countries, the seven countries. But if they come in, we want to say, what websites do they visit, and give us your passwords. So we can see what they do on the internet,” Kelly said, noting that if foreign nationals did not comply, they could be barred from entering the U.S.

The 51 groups who signed the letter pushed against this, saying that it would be a “direct assault on fundamental rights,” and that it would “fail to increase the security of U.S. citizens.”

The groups also argued that Kelly’s idea could set a dangerous global precedent.

“This demand is likely to be mirrored by foreign governments, which will demand passwords from U.S. citizens when they seek entry to foreign countries,” they wrote.

The letter’s signatories included trade groups such as the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA) and the Internet Association. Google, Facebook and Amazon belong to both groups.

Other signatories included the American Library Association, Internews and Access Now.

The group’s letter come on the heels of Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSenate Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill Overnight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions Finance to hold hearing on ObamaCare repeal bill MORE (D-Ore.) — a strong digital privacy advocate — separate letter to Kelly on Monday. Wyden called media reports of U.S Customs and Border Protection pressuring detained Americans into giving their phone PINs “deeply troubling” and in violation of their civil liberties.

Customs already has a policy in place where it asks foreign nationals traveling to the U.S. to voluntarily provide the names of their social media accounts — but not the passwords to those accounts.

Groups including the Internet Association, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) — who also signed Monday’s letter — criticized the policy in a separate letter released in August.

“This program would invade individual privacy and imperil freedom of expression while being ineffective and prohibitively expensive to implement and maintain,” the groups wrote.