Most foreigners arriving in the United States are greeted by Customs and Border Protection officers asking routine questions, such as the reason for the trip, where they’re staying and who they’re visiting. But the Trump administration is now considering a far more intensive screening process for visitors and visa applicants from some of our closest allies.
The new process would allow Homeland Security officials not only to go through social media content, but also to inspect cellphones for suspicious contacts. The process under consideration could apply to visitors from a broad cross-section of countries, possibly including the 38 countries whose citizens can usually enter the country without a visa per the Visa Waiver Program, such as Britain, France and Japan.
Even more alarming is a potential entrance questioning on ideology that would assess a visitor’s beliefs on issues such as the treatment of women in society, ethics in military conflict and the “sanctity of life,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Some have argued that these policies represent the president’s effort to fulfill his campaign promises of “extreme vetting.”
Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly succinctly articulated the administration’s considered approach for the seven countries included in the administration’s travel ban during a February congressional hearing: “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 . . . If they truly want to come to America, then they will cooperate. If not, next in line.” And while it’s too early to tell what the final policy will look like, the proposed procedures would, if adopted, set a dangerous precedent for privacy.
The proposal represents a marked break from core American values. As a model of democracy, we must protect both our citizens’ privacy and the privacy of non-citizens. We can’t cherry pick which values we embrace and to whom we apply them.
And not only is it bad for democracy, but also it’s bad for business. In 2014, international travel and tourism generated more than $1 trillion in spending around the world. We host many visitors each year in Las Vegas for CES, where more than 180,000 attendees — including more than 60,000 international attendees — gather to do business and drive the global technology market. Visitors to the United States not only buy American products, they stay in American hotels, eat in American restaurants and participate in American culture.
If we make it harder for international travelers to come to the United States we not only discourage business and tourism but also encourage a retaliatory response from other nations. How many of us would travel outside the United States if we had to give up our passwords, contacts and perhaps other information on our cellphones?
What’s more, social media screenings so far have resulted in dead-ends as a security tool. Last December, former US Citizenship and Immigration Services director Leon Rodriguez told Congress that most information acquired through such screenings had not been helpful.
Every day we get better tools to weed out the visitors who mean us harm — tools that don’t require giving up a password from what could well be a bogus account or asking everyone to share their private conversations and content. We can do gait analysis and facial recognition to confirm identities. We can employ biometrics to determine stress levels. We can use algorithms to analyze facial micro expressions to tell law enforcement whether someone is being deceptive. And apps such as Moodies and others can listen to a voice for as little as 20 seconds and determine the speaker’s emotion.
By combining the smart use of technology with modern questioning techniques such as those used by Israel to remarkable effect in their airports, smart security can strike a balance between our need for privacy and our need for safety. We can debate the privacy issues surrounding such use of these technologies, but certainly we can agree these are less immediately invasive — and more effective — than demanding passwords for cellphone and social media access.
The United States’ unique role as a model for democracy, a home for free enterprise and a beacon for the world’s best and brightest has been the reason for our global lead in innovation and our consistently strong economy. If we are to prosper, we must resist the urge to shut our doors and instead develop innovative ways to reduce the risks of imported terrorism.