In the latest example of the Trump Administration's plan to introduce so-called "extreme vetting" of visitors, border agents may soon demand foreigners turn over a raft of information from their phones such as contact lists and social media accounts.
The proposed security measures could be directed at visitors from close U.S. allies such as France, Britain, and Australia, according to Homeland Security officials who told The Wall Street Journal about the plan.
If the proposal goes forward as described, it would affect both visitors applying for a visa from overseas and those arriving at the border. It would also represent a significant expansion of a recent and controversial Homeland Security measure that asks for visitors from mostly non-European countries to share information about their social media activity.
As the Journal explains:
The biggest change to U.S. policy would be asking applicants to hand over their telephones so officials could examine their stored contacts and perhaps other information ... The goal is to "figure out who you are communicating with,” the senior DHS official said. “What you can get on the average person’s phone can be invaluable.”
A second change would ask applicants for their social-media handles and passwords so that officials could see information posted privately in addition to public posts.
If these measures are introduced, they are sure to spark a firestorm of criticism from civil liberties groups, who have warned that such policies are not only deeply intrusive but are likely to lead other countries to subject Americans to similar scrutiny when they travel abroad.
Meanwhile, they could also pose a chill to the domestic tourism industry. As Fortune reported this month, retailers are already anxious about a decline in spending from visitors—the more intrusive security measures, plus the continued strength of the dollar, could dissuade more people from vacationing in the United States.
As for the legality of the proposals, they would—contrary to President Trump's six-nation travel ban—likely face little opposition from the courts. The reason is that, when it comes to crossing the border, there are few Constitutional protections, and the majority of visitors are entitled to almost no protections at all. (See Fortune's recent guide: Social Media at the Border: Can Agents Ask for Your Facebook Feed?).
Finally, it remains unclear how far the new measures would go in improving security. On one hand, a phone's contact list amounts to a treasure trove of information, since Homeland Security could run the names and numbers against their existing databases, and potentially flush out members of terror cells. But on the other hand, the efficacy of such measures would likely diminish as criminals and terrorists became aware of them, and took steps to avoid them—probably by carrying new phones that contained little contact or social media information.