Someone once told me that you should never post anything online you don’t want to read on the front page of the newspaper. As an employer I often peruse facebook, myspace and other social networking sites when evaluating job applicants. The sites sometimes offer a candid glimpse into a prospective employee character—the stuff that is left off the resume and not mentioned during the job interview can be quite revealing. And, as social networking has become an integral part of modern culture, it can provide a wealth of heretofore unobtainable information about a person. 10 years ago, for example, it would have been impossible to point, click, and bring up an job applicant’s wedding, college, or baby photos. Social networking sites are a potential goldmine of information about a person, his or her associations, and interests.
So it comes as no surprise that the fraud division of the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services—FDNS—targets social networking sites in its effort to ferret out immigration and visa fraud. In fact this is nothing new. Years ago I represented a client who had been confronted at a green card interview with chat room postings in which he had asked for advice about disclosing a minor conviction to immigration authorities.
But what is surprising, and maybe even a bit chilling, is the government’s tactic of accessing the private data through deception. A Department of Homeland Security memo released yesterday entitled Social Sites Networking and Their Importance to FDNS encourages officers to take advantage of people’s “narcissistic tendencies” to access their private or semi-private pages. FDNS surmises that the human desire to be popular will enable it to quickly be “friended” by an unknown social networker:
Narcissistic tendencies in many people fuels a need to have a large group of “friends” link to their pages and many of these people accept cyber-friends that they don’t even know. This provides an excellent vantage point for FDNS to observe the daily life of beneficiaries and petitioners who are suspected of fraudulent activities. Generally, people on these sites speak honestly in their network because all of their friends and family are interacting with them via IM’s (Instant Messages), Blogs (Weblog journals), etc. This social networking gives FDNS an opportunity to reveal fraud by browsing these sites to see if petitioners and beneficiaries are in a valid relationship or are attempting to deceive CIS about their relationship. Once a user posts online, they create a public record and timeline of their activities. In essence using MySpace and other like sites is akin to doing an unannounced cyber “site-visit” on a petitioners and beneficiaries.
So every time I receive a friend request am I to assume it is really a an FDNS investigator looking for access to my facebook page and personal information? And what really happens in a cyber “site-visit”? We know from experience that incorrect information can easily be recorded into a petitioner’s or beneficiary’s file as a result of live site visits. For example, investigators are quick to assume that an employee who may be absent on the day of the unannounced visit doesn’t really work for the petitioning company or presume fraud when they find the petitioning company’s facility vacant, not realizing it relocated weeks before the the unannounced visit.
I can only imagine what a cyber “site visit” might look like. A crack FDNS agent, playing on your irresistible urge to be popular, logs in to facebook and tries to “friend” you calling himself John Doe. You immediately accept his friend request and suddenly your facebook page has become the government’s window into your personal life.
What if the FDNS agent logs in a week later and you have changed your profile photo? Some folks put up pictures of their pets. Will the DHS sleuths find this suspicious?
The more I thought about the DHS memo, the more nervous I became. I have hundreds of “friends” on facebook. So, I quickly deleted references to my date of birth, marital status, sexual orientation, and children. I cleansed it of any compromising photos, references to my hobbies, interests, and travels. I even deleted pictures of my dog, Louis, an Irish bred farm dog.
But I am not panicking. Louis was born in Pennsylvania and I have the papers to prove it.