The Department of Homeland Security put a notice in the wonky Federal Register that caught widespread attention this week: It plans to keep files on the social media activity of immigrants.
That touched off concern among immigrant rights groups that this was a new level of surveillance and an intrusion in their lives.
But Homeland Security officials say this is nothing new. In fact, the agency says, it has been collecting social media information on immigrants for years.
“DHS, in its law-enforcement and immigration-process capacity, has and continues to monitor publicly-available social media to protect the homeland,” Joanne Talbot, a spokeswoman for the department, said in a statement.
Talbot pointed to a policy adopted in 2012.
In the notice published this month in the Federal Register, DHS says the kinds of records it stores include “social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results.”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the branch of DHS that handles immigration applications, has files on foreigners applying for travel visas and for citizenship. That includes lawful permanent residents, or green card holders.
DHS says it is not collecting new social media data on naturalized U.S. citizens, though that information may still be in their file from when they applied for citizenship.
The Federal Register notice is “an effort to be transparent,” Talbot said, about information on social media accounts that USCIS is already collecting from immigrants.
“This amendment does not represent a new policy,” Talbot said.
Still, immigrants across the country are alarmed about what the government plans to do with the information they post on social media.
“The public has known for some time about DHS using social media monitoring as a form of surveillance of immigrants,” says Adam Schwartz at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights…