US begins asking 'select' foreign travellers about social media

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Washington, Dec 23 (IANS) The US government began asking select foreign visitors to provide their Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts upon arriving in the country, a move designed to spot potential terrorist threats, a media report said.

Since Tuesday, foreign travellers arriving in the country on the visa waiver programme have been presented with an "optional" request to "enter information associated with your online presence", a government official confirmed on Thursday. 

The prompt includes a drop-down menu that lists platforms including Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube, as well as a space for users to input their account names on those sites, Politico reported.

According to the official, the new policy comes as Washington tries to improve its ability to spot and deny entry to individuals who have ties to terrorist groups like the Islamic State. 

But the government has faced a barrage of criticism since it first floated the idea last year.

The Internet Association, which represents companies including Facebook, Google and Twitter, argued that the draft policy threatened free expression and posed new privacy and security risks to foreigners.

A spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection, who said the government approved the change on December 19, told Politico on Thursday that the new policy is meant to "identify potential threats". 

Previously, the agency had said it would not prohibit entry to foreigners who did not provide their social media account information.

The question itself is included in what is known as the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA), a process that certain foreign travellers must complete to come to the US. 

ESTA and a related paper form specifically apply to those arriving here through the visa-waiver programme, which allows citizens of 38 countries to travel and stay in the US for up to 90 days without a visa.

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