Australians applying for a US visa will now have to surrender handles for their social media accounts, plus email addresses and phone numbers for the past five years.
Part of a US Government crackdown on vetting procedures, the new section on the application form covers 20 platforms including Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube and Reddit.
From the US Government’s point of view, the move is a critical step towards preventing terrorists entering the country.
“As we’ve seen around the world in recent years, social media can be a major forum for terrorist sentiment and activity,” a statement from the department said.
“This will be a vital tool to screen out terrorists, public safety threats and other dangerous individuals from gaining immigration benefits and setting foot on US soil.”
Meanwhile, social platforms are outraged, saying the change violates privacy rights of their users. Immigration, privacy and free-speech advocates are equally alarmed and believe the new policy will unfairly target travellers and immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries.
Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, said the plan would “infringe on the rights of immigrants and U.S. citizens by chilling freedom of speech and association… There is a real risk that social media vetting will unfairly target immigrants and travellers from Muslim-majority countries for discriminatory visa denials, without doing anything to protect national security.”
It is estimated the change will effect around 15 million visitors and immigrants to the US each year. Australians visiting the country for less than 90 days can do so visa-free, but those who fall outside this time-frame will have to adhere to the strict new rules.
Previously, only applicants who needed additional vetting – such as people who had been to parts of the world controlled by terrorist groups – would need to hand over this data.
Applying for Australian visas: Do your social media accounts matter?
While applications applying to visit Australia aren’t subjected to quite this level of social media scrutiny, the Department of Home Affairs is legally able to use information from Facebook and other social media accounts from time to time to verify claims made in a visa application.
In one high profile Australian case, for example, a Bangladeshi national’s protection visa submission was denied by the Department of Home Affairs based on inconsistencies relating to his religious status. The man claimed he’d converted to Christianity before leaving Bangladesh, and that returning to his home country would put his safety at risk. According to his Facebook profile, however, he was still a practicing Muslim.
Beyond the application process, Australian immigration can also use social media accounts to monitor visitors while they’re travelling in the country on a visa, and even cancel a visa during a stay.
Visitors coming to Australia to work will need a visa that suits the work they intend to do. As an employer, it’s your obligation to ensure your staff hold the appropriate visa for each role and that they comply with their visa terms and conditions. Failure to comply can result in hefty fines and penalties.