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Social Media, Cell Phone Searches For Travelers ‘Not Routine,’ Homeland Security Secretary Says

Social Media, Cell Phone Searches For Travelers ‘Not Routine,’ Homeland Security Secretary Says

Department of Homeland Secretary John Kelly sought to allay concerns the United States would routinely require foreigners to hand over their phones and social media passwords when entering the country.

Kelly, in Senate testimony Wednesday, acknowledged that stricter vetting standards would be applied to some foreigners, but said they wouldn’t broadly target travelers from the United States’ allies. “We won’t probably do the same type of additional vetting in say, Britain or Japan,” he told members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. “It just depends on the country or the threat.”

Homeland Security officials are planning to revamp vetting procedures for visa applicants to comply with President Donald Trump’s order to institute so-called extreme vetting. The new measures could include requesting access to cell phone contacts, social media handles and passwords, financial records, and questions about ideology and beliefs for all visa applicants, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday. The changes might even apply to visitors and immigrants from close American allies, including the 38 countries who participate in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, according to the article.

But at Wednesday’s hearing, Kelly downplayed those possibilities in response to pointed questions from Sen. Clare McCaskill (D-MO), who seemed concerned that too-aggressive vetting would run counter to American values and deter foreigners from visiting the United States.

McCaskill, the panel’s most senior Democrat, said her “hair was on fire” at the prospect that any traveler could potentially expect to be questioned on their beliefs in order to enter the United States, even if it is not routinely asked. “It seems to me we are signaling something very un-American to the rest of the world in announcing this policy,” she said. She pointed out that potential terrorists could easily bring a burner phone and lie about their beliefs. “We are doing things that in no way trips up the bad guys and permanently changes America’s image in the world,” she said.

Kelly described a less expansive change than was reported by the Wall Street Journal, while offering few specifics. He said device searches for people entering the country are already a standard practice for foreigners who are flagged for an extra screening because of irregularities, like database cross checks or unusual travel patterns. But they are “not routine.” While millions of people enter the United States every day, he said, “one half of one percent might have their device looked at.” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) clarified that last year nearly 24,000 traveler’s had their devices searched.

Visa and refugee applicants from high-risk countries, like Iraq and Afghanistan, already undergo extensive background checks that can include social media screenings, financial and medical records, and sharing their phone contacts.

For visitors already cleared to to travel to the United States, device screening at the airport “is done in a very small number of cases,” Kelly said. “But if there’s a reason to do it, we will in fact do it. Whether its France, Britain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Somalia, it won’t be routinely done at the port of entry.”

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) expressed concerns over reports that American citizens and legal permanent residents recently were asked to turn over their phones when returning to the United States. As an American citizen “do you think it’s appropriate to deny me entry to the country unless I let you search my phone?” he asked Kelly.

Kelly appeared to partially sidestep the question. “I don’t believe we are turning or we ever turned back legal citizens or legal residents,” Kelly said. “It is certainly happening to foreigners coming in, but it’s not routine.”

The hearing also discussed the recent electronics ban on devices larger than a cell phone in the cabins of direct flights from certain Middle Eastern countries. Kelly said DHS is continuing to assess potential terrorist threats and may expand the number of airports subject to the laptop ban.  

Photo Credit: ZACH GIBSON/Getty Images