Privacy and freedom of expression rights face increasing oppression in the United States, as border controls are now holding individuals to account for messages and social media posts that are sent to them or posted by friends and associates. A number of foreign nationals have been rejected at the border because of the posts of friends’, family or acquaintances.
It is estimated that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection have conducted 33,295 electronic device searches in 2018, which is nearly four times the amount in 2015. This new tactic demonstrates a worrying trend for the suppression of freedom of speech and freedom of movement for people in the United States today.
In the most recent case, a Palestinian student living in Lebanon was denied access to the U.S due to posts his friends made on social media. Ismail Ajjawi, a student from Tyre, South Lebanon arrived at Boston airport to start his freshman year at the prestigious Harvard university. On landing at the airport his phone and laptop were searched for five hours and an officer “started screaming” at him after she discovered that some of his friends had posted opinions on social media that “opposed the US”. Mr Ajjawi argued that he should not be responsible for the posts of other people, but in spite of his valid argument, he was sent back to Lebanon.
U.S Customs and Border Protection have not yet confirmed Mr Ajawwi’s case. Their spokesman Michael McCarthy has so far only said that ‘the decision to cancel Ajjawi’s visa was based on information discovered during an inspection.’ He declined to give further details but emphasised that Ajjawi was not deported, meaning he can still pursue re-entry to the U.S.
Critics of the Trump administration say that this case, and others like it, are markers of excessively invasive border and immigration controls.
Summer Lopez, a senior director at free speech NGO, PEN America said,
“Preventing people from entering the country because their friends critiqued the U.S. on social media shows an astounding disregard for the principle of free speech,”
Despite international outcry, the Trump administration continues to defend these invasions of privacy as being in the interests of national security. They say that ‘enhanced searches are critical to prevent extremists from entering the country.’
In June this year the State Department expanded measures requiring nearly all applicants for U.S visas to give up their old email accounts, phone number and all social media usernames. Previously, under the Obama and other administrations, this level of probing into personal information was only requested for those who had travelled to areas connected to or controlled by proscribed organisations.