By: Neil Fiest
Whether you are #buildthewall or #nowall, you long ago recognized that border security looms large in the Trump administration’s agenda. New border policies are still in development, and the effect they’ll have on America’s security is indeterminate. What’s clear is that crossing the border legally or otherwise will become more demanding for the next four years. A major reason for this is the likely implementation of an augmented screening process at border security points across the country.
The White House is exploring the possibility of adding a social media screening phase to the existing border security process. Exactly how this inspection would be executed, what material would be subject to examination or collection, and how effectively that data can be exploited to demonstrate links to terrorism or other nefarious activity remains to be seen. Presumably, border officials would deny entry to foreign visitors who have derogatory or suspect information on their social media accounts. Privacy advocates will be alarmed at the prospect of the government reviewing information considered private or semi-private, depending on a user’s privacy settings. On the other hand, in some respects the new regulations can be seen as a modernization of the Obama Administration’s existing screening process, which provides border agents with liberal authority to search electronic devices.
Another key factor likely to be assessed during the discussion of this new screening process is the efficacy with which government analysts can evaluate a visitor’s online presence to make a determination regarding eligibility for entry. The depth and breadth of the online inspection must be weighed carefully to ensure the process will accurately identify derogatory content. For example, when online friends, friends of friends, etc…, are scrutinized, how many degrees of separation between connections are meaningful? At some point, the connections become largely coincidental and not relevant to an investigation. Border officials will have to balance the necessity of automated nationwide screening with the need for nuanced investigations based in social network theory and analysis tradecraft.
The sheer volume of social media data generated during screening is another key factor for consideration. This new data in addition to data from pre-existing screening procedures will need to be stored, transmitted, and analyzed. Border officials will need new storage solutions, bandwidth, and additional time for the resulting analysis. These required enhancements cannot simply be achieved by funneling money to existing capabilities. Collecting cloud-based social media data from an electronic device will not be accomplished using the same means one would use to scrape a device’s local media (i.e. pictures or text messages). Additionally, analyzing social media information effectively will require multidisciplinary analytical units, comprised of linguists, regional, counter-terrorism, and transnational criminal organization subject matter experts, at a minimum. Though the implementation of the administration’s new policy seems limited in scope, it would require a significant investment in new capabilities and manpower.
Large portions of the American public will disagree on the ethics of social media screening, while others may debate the fiscal ramifications or the value of a more thorough process. As the social landscape continues to modernize, technological and process innovation will be crucial to the government’s ability to adequately secure the border. Policymakers must consider that the most challenging part of implementing the Trump administration’s border security measures may not be the policy fights, but the technological implications of cloud-based social media collection and analysis.