The US state department said it wants to review social media postings, email addresses and phone numbers of some foreigners seeking US visas, as part of the Trump administration's enhanced screening of potential immigrants and visitors.
The department, in a notice published on Thursday in the Federal Register, said it was seeking public comment on the requirement. But it also said it is requesting a temporary go-ahead from the White House budget office so the plan can take effect for 180 days, beginning 18 May, irrespective of public comments.
The proposed requirements would apply to visa applicants identified for extra scrutiny, such as those who have travelled to areas controlled by terrorist organisations. The state department said it estimates that the rules would affect about 0.5 per cent of total US visa applicants, or roughly 65,000 people.
Affected applicants would have to provide their social media handles and platforms used during the previous five years, and divulge all phone numbers and email addresses used during that period. US consular officials would not seek social media passwords, and would not try to breach any privacy controls on applicants' accounts, according to the department's notice.
Since last year, immigration officials have sought social media information from some foreigners arriving at US border checkpoints, but that information had not previously been required on visa applications.
The new rules also would require applicants to provide 15 years of travel and work history and the names and dates of birth of all siblings, children and current and former spouses or partners. Visa applicants are now generally asked for only five years of travel and work history and are not asked for information about their siblings.
The state department said it wanted the additional information "in order to more rigorously evaluate applicants for terrorism or other national security-related visa ineligibilities."
The proposal follows a March directive from the state department for all US embassies and consulates to draw up criteria for "population sets" needing extra scrutiny before receiving US visas.
Immigration lawyers and advocates say the request for 15 years of detailed biographical information, as well as the expectation that applicants remember all their social media handles, is likely hurt visa applicants who make innocent mistakes or do not remember all the information requested.
They also question whether the time-consuming screening can achieve its intended goal of identifying potential terrorists.
Because reviewing social media information is labour intensive, several pilot programmes have experimented with automation. But a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inspector general report concluded in February that the technology has so far proven flawed and required humans to ensure accuracy, leaving most of the checks to be done manually.
Applicants may not necessarily be denied a visa if they fail to provide all the information if it is determined they can provide a "credible explanation", the notice said.
Secretary of state Rex Tillerson first introduced similar measures in a March cable to American consular officers that outlined questions officers should now ask in order to tighten vetting of US visa applicants. But he had to withdraw that guidance in a cable just days later, writing to officers worldwide that the OMB had not approved those specific questions.
The state department estimated that the additional screening measures would take approximately an hour per applicant, meaning an additional 65,000 additional hours of work per year.
"Somebody's got to do the work," Greg Siskind, an immigration attorney in Memphis, was quoted by media as saying. "It's going to cause operations at a lot of consulates slow to a crawl."