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Passport And Twitter Handle, Please: Border Agents May Soon Ask For Social Media Info

The Department of Homeland Security might start requesting some travelers' social media handles.

That's according to a proposal submitted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection last week.

The proposed policy — which is currently open for public comment — would ask for social media "identifiers," such as handles or usernames, from travelers entering the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program.

Providing such information would be optional, not mandatory. The Department of Homeland Security says it would provide "greater clarity and visibility to possible nefarious activity and connections" by giving investigators more tools to analyze.

The program allows residents of many countries to visit the U.S. without applying for a visa (which is required for visitors from the rest of the world).

"Thirty-eight nations, including most of Europe, are visa waiver countries," NPR's Brian Naylor reported last year. "It's a largely hassle-free way to come to the U.S. for tourists and business people. You'll need to answer a few questions on a form on the Internet and have a passport with a digital photograph."

The proposal from DHS would add an extra field to that form. The proposed text would read:

"Please enter information associated with your online presence—Provider/Platform—Social media identifier."

Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida criticized the idea in a statement, arguing that a proposal that relies on voluntary disclosure "lacks teeth."

"What terrorist is going to give our government permission to see their radical jihadist rants on social media?" Buchanan asked. "The only people who will share that information are those with nothing to hide."

Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told the BBC that he opposes the move for a very different reason.

"Democracy in general requires having spaces free from government scrutiny and increasingly social life happens online," he told the British broadcaster.

The proposal is currently in a public comment period and won't move forward with approval until at least Aug. 22.

You might remember that the Visa Waiver Program made headlines late last year, following the November attacks in Paris, when the program came under scrutiny.

As of this past January, citizens of VWP countries who are also citizens of Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria are no longer eligible for the VWP. People who have visited one or more of those countries since March 1, 2011, are also excluded.

That doesn't mean they can't visit the U.S.; it just means they must go through the lengthier visa process to do so.

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Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.