Watchdog: DHS Isn't Ready for Social Media to Become a Bigger Part of Visa Screening


The department's social media pilot programs lack adequate benchmarks, so DHS doesn't have a good way to evaluate whether they're working.

Congress has urged the Homeland Security Department to delve into social media accounts belonging to immigrants and foreign travelers before they're allowed to enter the country, but the department isn't ready to evaluate whether it would work.

Following revelations that one of the shooters in the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack had posted messages suggesting radical tendencies on social media sites, a group of senators directed the DHS to investigate immigrants and visitors' potential ties to terrorist groups via social media.

Though DHS has piloted a handful of automated tools to search for travelers' social media accounts, the department doesn't have adequate benchmarks to evaluate whether they're working, according to a report from the Office of the Inspector General.

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The report comes shortly after DHS Secretary John Kelly's confirmation hearing, during which he discussed eventual plans to require travelers to hand over their social media accounts and passwords before being allowed in the country.

The IG report redacts the names of the social media search tools and the classes of immigrants and travelers participating in the pilot. One U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services program—which relied on Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency technology—searched the social media posts from refugees who voluntarily handed over their account names for "derogatory social media information that could impact their eligibility for immigration benefits or admissibility into the United States." 

USCIS concluded the program had a "low 'match confidence,'" but didn't technically have benchmarks so DHS "does not know what level of match confidence would signify success or failure."

Another USCIS pilot attempted to use automated search to find confirmed social media accounts for travelers, but also "did not have metrics to measure success," the IG found. "[I]t is difficult to conclude whether finding individuals with confirmed social media accounts constitutes success."

The IG recommended the DHS' undersecretary of intelligence and analysis work both with USCIS and Immigration and Customs Enforcement—which was running a different pilot—on "well-defined, clear and measurable objectives and standards" for pilots.

DHS concurred with the recommendation.