TSG IntelBrief: ‘Extreme Vetting’ and Social Media
May 5, 2017

‘Extreme Vetting’ and Social Media


Bottom Line Up Front:

• On May 4, the U.S. State Department submitted a proposal to begin incorporating checks of social media accounts into visa decisions.

• The proposed changes would affect around 65,000 applicants per year who are deemed to warrant additional screening over terrorism or security concerns.

• The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has already been collecting similar information, though such data has been provided voluntarily up to now.

• Though social media checks will not catch every potential threat, they might spot obvious concerns early in the visa approval process.


Given the significant role social media has played in spreading terrorist propaganda and ideology, the U.S. government has been trying to find a way to conduct reasonable checks of visa applicants’ social media accounts for obvious signs of pro-terror sentiment without bringing the entire system to a halt. The push for ‘extreme vetting’ of visa and asylum requests for specific countries runs counter to the reality that the overwhelming majority of recent terror attacks in the U.S. have not involved refugees or those on temporary visas. However, investigations after several attacks such as San Bernardino have revealed relevant social media postings that in hindsight seem like obvious points that should have been checked. To avoid the potential to miss obvious terror threats, various U.S. agencies and departments are now implementing some level of assessments for the social media accounts of those seeking entry into the U.S. The security rationale behind the procedural changes in vetting is rather straight forward, while the implementation and criteria for flagging worrisome posts are far more complicated.

On May 4, the U.S. State Department submitted a notice of a proposed rule change for reviewing visa applications that, among other things, includes asking select applicants to provide all social media account names (or handles) used in the last five years. According to the proposed rules, applicants can opt to not provide such information but will need a ‘credible reason’ for doing so. The new rules will not be applied wholesale to the millions of visa applications (immigrant and nonimmigrant) submitted each year, but rather to those which “have been determined to warrant additional scrutiny in connection with terrorism or other national security-related visa ineligibilities.”

The specific criteria that would trigger the social media account vetting is not yet clear, though there were reports in February that applicants who had traveled to ‘Islamic State-controlled territories’ will face additional screening of their social media accounts, email, and cell phone numbers. The May 4 notice by the State Department included an estimate of 65,000 applicants per year who would be subjected to the additional screening. At one hour per individual, the new measures would add 65,000 man-hours to the visa application process.

The wholesale screening of the social media history of all visa applicants is obviously unworkable from a manpower standpoint. The more targeted approach in the May 4 proposal avoids that manpower issue, though the State Department is facing a future of potential budget and personnel cuts that could make the proposed changes problematic. It remains to be seen how the proposed changes will play out in practice, and what data points would lead to a more invasive vetting. Still, visa applications are by definition rather extensive and invasive, and given the growth of social media, the U.S. is going to have to come up with some feasible and effective means for assessing these new and public sources of information about an applicant’s background. The argument that such measures will not catch all potential threats is an argument that can be made for any type of security measure; the best background checks—as with most defenses—are layered.


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