As the data protection scandal plaguing social media giant Facebook continues to unfurl, it appears obvious lessons are not being learned. The US government is proposing to gather social media data from visa applicants as part of the vetting process. The change is likely to affect 710,000 immigrant and 14 million tourist visa applicants annually. The irony is unlikely to escape Americans: while companies like Cambridge Analytica harvested user data with the intention of subverting democracy, the US government is increasing its scrutiny under the guise of legitimacy, ostensibly to protect citizens and maintain order but effectively acting as a police state. The policy is part of US President Donald Trump's push for "extreme vetting" of foreigners and follows rules implemented last May facilitating selective social media monitoring. Critics have expressed concern about the policy's implications for freedom of speech. Indeed, one wonders why one of the world's slickest and most powerful surveillance states needs to investigate the social media accounts of applicants. Could it be designed to make future visitors think twice before criticising the mercurial US president? Generally, it fits a trend that has seen social media users express growing discomfort at the quantity of data they have surrendered to internet companies, who will no doubt be unnerved by the level of scrutiny.
Assuming the change is for security purposes, it may be ineffective. Terrorists planning intricate attacks are unlikely to broadcast them. Besides, those who have expressed a predisposition towards violence on social media – including the perpetrator of the recent Parkland school shooting – often go unnoticed. Another valid concern, reminiscent of Mr Trump's disastrous Muslim travel ban, is that the policy is inherently divisive, excluding visitors with visa waivers from Britain, France, Germany and Canada. Mr Trump has made a habit of stoking racial tensions and attacking his social media detractors. It would be extremely concerning if, amid a Facebook scandal sparking fears about data harvesting, the US government appears tone-deaf in invading privacy still further.