Following President Trump’s calls for “extreme vetting” of immigrants from seven Muslim majority countries, then–Department of Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly hinted that he wanted full access to visa applicants’ social-media profiles. “We may want to get on their social media, with passwords. It’s very hard to truly vet these people in these countries, the seven countries,” Kelly said to the House’s Homeland Security Committee, adding, “If they don’t cooperate, they can go back.”
Such a proposal, if implemented, would expand the department’s secretive social media–monitoring capacities. And as the Department of Homeland Security moves toward grabbing more social-media data from foreigners, such information may be increasingly interpreted and emotionally characterized by sophisticated data-mining programs. What should be constitutionally protected speech could now hinder the mobility of travelers because of a secretive regime that subjects a person’s online words to experimental “emotion analysis.” According to audio leaked to The Nation, the Department of Homeland Security is currently building up data sets with social media–profile information that are searchable by “tone.”
At an industry conference in January, Michael Potts, then–Deputy Under Secretary for Enterprise and Mission Support at the DHS’s Office of Intelligence & Analysis, told audience members that the DHS’s unclassified-data environment today has four data sets that are “searchable by tone,” and plans to have 20 additional such data sets before the end of this year. This data environment, known as Neptune, includes data from US Customs & Border Protection’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization database, which currently retains publicly available social media–account data from immigrants and travelers participating in the Visa Waiver Program.
According to Potts, whose department has been charged with designing the president’s “extreme vetting” program, these search capabilities are being built for numerous Department of Homeland Security agencies’ data streams: “What we’re trying to do with a project that within the department we call ‘The Data Framework’ is to break down those stove pipes by taking near real-time feeds by the various systems…processing that information appropriately, tagging it, making sure it’s replicating what [is] in that CBP system, Coastguard system, or ICE system, and then making it available in the data lake so that we can put search and other analytic tools on top of that data.”
The collection of social-media data in data sets that can be searched by tone suggests that authorities could be turning to the emerging fields of tone and emotional analysis to vet immigrants and travelers. Such processes use natural language–processing algorithms to identify emotional values in large amounts of text data. It is unclear what programs immigration authorities would be using for this aspect of social-media monitoring, but one former Customs and Border Protection agent told The Nation that the division uses a mix of third-party and in-house software tools for data-mining projects. Neither Potts nor the Department of Homeland Security responded to The Nation’s numerous requests for comment for this article.