DHS is Using Fake Social Media Profiles to Investigate Immigrants

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The Homeland Security Department is using fake social media accounts to run background checks on people hoping to settle in the U.S., though at least one social media company plans to fight the practice.

Under the updated policy, U.S. Customs and Immigration Services can create “fictitious accounts or identities” to access social media accounts of people applying for green cards, citizenship, work visas and other immigration benefits. Officers may also collect information on any other individuals associated with the applicant as long as it’s “reasonably relevant” to the investigation, the agency said in a privacy impact assessment released Friday.

Beyond background checks, officers are also permitted to use fake profiles to investigate potential fraud and study broader trends in immigration and the vetting process. 

According to the assessment, officers can only use the fictitious accounts to access publicly available information, and they’re not allowed to message, friend or follow any individuals to gather more data. The DHS Privacy Office recommended officers only use such accounts when necessary, noting fake profiles “should not be the default option.” 

USCIS has used social media to review immigration applicants since 2012, but a 2014 policy document explicitly prohibited officers from using fake accounts in the course of those investigations. 

In 2017, then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson authorized the agency to create fictitious profiles to access publicly available information. The assessment released Friday is meant to notify the public that those practices have gone into effect.

“Incorporating reviews of publicly available information on social media platforms in our threat detection work is a common sense measure to strengthen our vetting procedures and vigilance in safeguarding our legal immigration system from those would seek to exploit and abuse it,” a USCIS spokesperson told Nextgov.

The announcement comes as social media companies crack down on fake profiles in an effort to fight foreign misinformation campaigns.

Policies on fake accounts vary widely from company to company. Some platforms, including Facebook and LinkedIn, explicitly prohibit users from misrepresenting themselves online, while others like Twitter and Reddit don’t require users to provide their real names or verify their identities.

In an email to Nextgov, a Facebook spokesperson said the company plans to remove any fake accounts it uncovers, including those operated by Homeland Security and other law enforcement agencies.

“Law enforcement authorities, like everyone else, are required to use their real names on Facebook and we make this policy clear on our public-facing law enforcement guidelines page,” the spokesperson said. “Operating fake accounts is not allowed, and we will act on any violating accounts.”

Officers are required to undergo special training before they can stand up any online profiles, and they must also get supervisors’ approval to create fake accounts. USCIS plans to regularly audit its use of fictitious profiles, according to the assessment.

On paper, these safeguards could go a long way in protecting individuals’ privacy and civil liberties, but it’s still unclear how they’ll be put into practice, said Mana Azarmi, a policy counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology. USCIS hasn’t disclosed information about the social media training officers receive or specifically outlined how the agency would justify the use of fake accounts, she said, and without that information, “it’s very difficult to sit here and say that there are sufficient safeguards in place to prevent abuse.”

 “[USCIS is] providing the public notice, but what would provide the public confidence is ... documents that illustrate what structures [are] in place, what rules they have to abide by, what they’re doing to ensure they don’t trample on the exercise of fundamental rights,” Azarmi said in a conversation with Nextgov.

She also raised concerns about law enforcement’s use of social media more broadly. Online screening could potentially discourage free speech and free association, she said, citing a recent incident in which a Palestinian Harvard University student was initially denied entry to the U.S. because of a friend’s social media posts. People also don’t always represent their true thoughts and feelings online, she added, so officers could end up making significant decisions based on unreliable information.

In the assessment, the DHS Privacy Office acknowledged the “inherent data accuracy concerns” associated with social media and recommended USCIS “make a reasonable effort to ensure the accuracy of the information.”