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US Increasingly Focused on Social Media to Weigh Terror Threats

FILE - The Islamic State hashtag (#ISIS) is seen typed into the Twitter application on a smartphone in this picture illustration taken in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The United States government has become increasingly focused on the idea of examining social media posts in order to make determinations about who represents a security threat to the country.

The latest example is a proposal from the Customs and Border Protection arm of the Department of Homeland Security to ask foreign travelers to disclose information about their accounts on services like Facebook and Twitter.

It would appear as an optional question on the form people fill out either upon arrival or presubmit online with information such as their name, address, phone number and the names of countries they have visited since 2011. It would also only apply to travelers from the 38 countries allowed visa-free entry into the U.S.

"Collecting social media data will enhance the existing investigative process and provide DHS greater clarity and visibility to possible nefarious activity and connections by providing an additional tool set which analysts and investigators may use to better analyze and investigate the case," the proposal says.

Customs and Border Protection is asking the Office of Management and Budget for permission to add the question and says it would affect an estimated 24 million people. There is a 60-day comment period for the public to weigh in.

Meanwhile, members of Congress have been busy during their current session drafting bills involving examining social media posts for terror links.

Senator John McCain sponsored one of several bills that would require the Department of Homeland Security to look at internet activity and social media profiles of anyone applying for admission to the U.S.

FILE - Sen. John McCain on Capitol Hill in Washington.
FILE - Sen. John McCain on Capitol Hill in Washington.

"It is unacceptable that Congress has to legislate on this, and that it wasn't already the Department of Homeland Security's practice to take such commonsense steps when screening individuals entering this country," McCain said.

A bill from Senators Martin Heinrich and Jeff Flake specifies that DHS "may search open source information, including internet and social media postings, of an alien who applies for a visa to enter the United States."

"It should be crystal clear to those inside and outside of DHS that the agency has the authority to review publicly available social media posts when vetting visa applications," Flake said.

The proposals do not seem to address the accounts of anyone who has set their posts to be private.

"Reviewing the public social media posts of an individual seeking a U.S. visa is just common sense in the digital world we live in today," Heinrich said.

Senator Chuck Schumer has proposed a different tactic to alert authorities to potential terrorists. He wants to use the Justice Department's existing Rewards for Justice program to pay people who submit a tip about a social media post that leads to the arrest of someone planning an attack in the U.S.

FILE - A Customs and Border Protection officer checks the passport of a non-resident visitor to the United States inside immigration control at McCarran International Airport.
FILE - A Customs and Border Protection officer checks the passport of a non-resident visitor to the United States inside immigration control at McCarran International Airport.

"We are in a time when a terrorist a world away can corrupt a disaffected youth -- and with just a few posts or tweets, can push them to plan or carry out acts of terror," Schumer said. "We need the public's eyes to alert authorities if they see someone they know writing things they know spell trouble."

He wants the awards to range from $25,000 to $25 million.

In the House of Representatives, Congressman Stephen Fincher is focusing on keeping those serving time in federal prisons from becoming radicalized and posing a threat when they are released. His bill calls for anyone who wants to volunteer in the prisons to divulge their social media accounts as part of a background check for possible links to terrorism.

"Over the years, our federal prisons have become a breeding ground for radicalization," Fincher said. "By allowing volunteers to enter the system without first having to undergo a comprehensive background check, some of the most vulnerable members of society have become susceptible to radicalization."