On 31 May, the U.S. State Department formalized and implemented a policy requiring that nearly all visa applicants provide five years’ worth of social media account information, email addresses, and phone numbers in order to be allowed entry to the country. (Exceptions will be made for diplomatic visas.)

Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW Organizing Committee calls on Columbia University, and in particular the International Student Services Office, to recognize and denounce this policy for what it clearly is: the next example of a xenophobic attack from an administration that has previously targeted individuals through the Muslim Ban, as well as by visa duration limits placed upon Chinese STEM students. As GWC has observed in a prior statement, these policies have resulted in disruptive visa renewal delays for international students from targeted countries. The requirement that visa applicants surrender social media handles, e-mail addresses, and cell phone numbers now makes all international students vulnerable to two additional, insidious layers of disruption to work and study: threats to freedom of speech and freedom of association.

By requiring visa applicants to provide social media account information, the State Department makes an implicit threat of ongoing surveillance of the content of those accounts. The knowledge that social media posts may be subject to state monitoring will inevitably have a chilling effect on visa holders’ freedom of expression, including statements which indicate union affiliation.

Arguably much more disturbing is the fact that exhaustive knowledge of an individual’s social media, email, and cell phone accounts will give the State Department access to highly revelatory meta-data. This form of information, which was at the center of the 2013 NSA domestic surveillance scandal, has the potential to reflect professional and political affiliations, personal relationships, shopping habits, financial activity, medical conditions, and other details of one’s daily personal life.

This information can be gleaned by observing which accounts an individual follows or is followed by on a platform like Twitter or Facebook; which numbers they text or call most frequently; where they are spending their nights and during which hours they are asleep (based on geolocation and network connectivity data recorded by cell-phones)—the list goes on and on.

We do not know whether the major tech companies will comply with State Department demands for information in connection with this new policy, but we should bear in mind that companies like Google and Apple possess extensive geolocation data reflecting where we travel and what means we use to get there—including travel and assembly for the purpose of political protest, union membership, and cultural activities including religious worship.

Many current and future union members will be impacted directly by this new policy. It is essential that powerful institutions like Columbia University and other universities around the United States speak out against this and all other incursions upon visa holders’ rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

Information via:

The New York Times, “U.S. Requiring Social Media Information From Visa Applicants” (2 June 2019)

CBS News, “State Department now requires U.S. visa applicants to share social media accounts” (6 June 2019)

The Washington Post, “The U.S. wants visa applicants’ social media names. It should prove it needs them.” (9 June 2019)

2013 NSA meta-data scandal:The Guardian (6 June 2013)