Social media spies: with friends like these, who needs enemies?

social media friends
Image credit: Zenzen |

We’re often told these days that you should be careful of what you post on social media because it may come back to haunt you. Now even your friends’ posts can get you in trouble.

A report in TechCrunch last week highlighted the growing trend of US border officials denying visas to legal immigrants after inspecting their smartphones for social media and other content – a high-profile example of which is Ismail Ajjawi, a Palestinian student living in Lebanon, whose student visa was canceled after Customs & Border Protection (CBP) officers in Boston searched his smartphone and found some social media posts they said disqualified him from entry.

The kicker: the offending social media posts hadn’t even been posted by Ajjawi himself, but by friends.

That’s a new twist to the tale of social media becoming increasingly embedded in our lives to the point that we have to be more careful about what we post, if only for privacy reasons.

For example, what you post on social media can cost you your job, or lower your chances of landing one. HR managers regularly check the social media profiles of job applicants to see if they post anything untowards (toxic politics, nude selfies, long venomous screeds about their previous employer, etc). But according to a blog post on, even posting next to nothing or making sure it’s not public is grounds for suspicion.

But at least that’s a matter of what you post to your own account. Imagine your next job hanging on what your friends are also posting – as if you have any control over that.

That was Ajjawi’s argument, and he was deported anyway. Luckily – and ironically – after news of his case went viral on social media, Ajjawi has since had his visa reinstated. But the CBP has given no official reason why it reversed course.

In any case, the practice of vetting social media at the US border continues. Indeed, we can expect to see more of it – according to TechCrunch, the number of device searches at the US border has increased four-fold to over 30,200 each year in the last four years, even though the legality of such searches is still under question. The CBP says it doesn’t need a warrant to force travellers to unlock their phones, tablets and laptops for the same reason they don’t need a warrant to search the travellers themselves or their luggage. US courts have yet to definitively rule on that issue.

Meanwhile, in June the Trump administration established rules requiring most US visa applicants to provide all of their social media handles, as well as previously used phone numbers and email addresses over the last five years. So they won’t even need your phone to see what you and your so-called friends are posting online.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong …

This isn’t just a US issue. Earlier this month, the South China Morning Post reported that Chinese border officers at the Shenzhen checkpoints and the West Kowloon high-speed rail terminal were ordering Hong Kong citizens crossing the border to hand over their smartphones to check for evidence that they had either attended recent anti-government protests or had expressed support for them in any way.

China has reportedly been doing this sort of thing for awhile at the border between Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang, particularly to foreign tourists. In those cases, border guards are taking the extra step of extracting data from smartphones, including emails, text messages and contacts to look for anything incriminating, suspicious or undesirable.

And while one could say, “Oh well, yes, it’s China, what do you expect?”, it’s worth noting that the Hong Kong Police Force is currently seeking the legal power to search smartphones on the spot without a warrant.

If that’s not bad enough, companies like Cathay Pacific who do business in China are being pressured to monitor what their employees post online.

After the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) imposed a ban on aircrew from operating flights to mainland China if they joined or supported “illegal protests”, Cathay Pacific responded with a zero-tolerance policy, warning staff that voicing support for the protests or posting it on private social media accounts – even if it’s a comment on someone else’s post – could be grounds for suspension or termination. Several staff have already been sacked over it, including Rebecca Sy, the leader of the cabin crew union for Cathay Dragon.

Reportedly, other businesses are taking similar actions. Even if your employer might not actively monitor your social media pactivityosts, someone – possibly your own friends – might doxx you to ensure your boss finds out that you are supporting The Wrong Side – or you approve of people who do.

It’s easy to write these off as isolated and context-specific examples, but it’s probably wise to address this now before it becomes widespread. It’s one thing to be held accountable for what you post online – it’s quite another when what other people post can also incriminate you. Is that really the digital society we want?

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