During a press conference today US President Barack Obama finally set the record straight about whether the government monitors the social media posts of foreign nationals entering the United States. The short answer: Most definitely. Right now, the Department of Homeland Security hasn't admitted to monitoring the private social media accounts of people applying for visas in the United States. But you can bet that anything said on an unlocked Twitter account or public Facebook post is fair game for surveillance by the Department of Homeland Security and other law enforcement agencies.
From President Obama, responding to a question from Reuters:
The issue of reviewing social media for those who are obtaining visas I think may have gotten garbled a little bit. It's important to distinguish between posts that are public — social media on a Facebook page — versus private communications through various social media or apps. And our law enforcement and intelligence professionals are constantly monitoring public posts and that is part of the visa review process — that people are investigating what individuals have said publicly, and questioned about any statements they maybe made.
But if you have private communications between two people that's harder to discern, by definition. And one of the things we'll be doing is engaging with the high-tech community to find out how we can, in an appropriate way, do a better job if we have a lead, to be able to track suspected terrorists.
But we're going to have to recognise that no government is going to have the capacity to read every single person's texts or emails or social media. If it's not posted publicly then there are going to be feasibility issues that are probably insurmountable at some level. And you know it raises certain questions about our values.
Keep in mind it was only a couple years ago where we were having a major debate about whether the government was becoming too much like Big Brother. And over all I think we've struck the right balance in protecting civil liberties and making sure that US citizens' privacy is preserved.
For what it's worth, I recently went through the permanent residency application process with my wife, who's an Australian citizen, and this was something that we were very conscious of. We certainly took it for granted that all of our public social media accounts were being monitored, even if the government hadn't said as much publicly.
I can't say that it radically changed the way we conducted ourselves online, but it certainly makes you doubly aware of the fact that we live in a brave new world of government surveillance — all thanks to our own willingness to make our lives so public. If you're a heavy user of social media and want to travel to (let alone move to) the United States, expect that your social media accounts are being monitored closely.