In the wake of terrorist shootings in San Bernardino, California, a bipartisan pair of U.S. senators urged President Obama to include a review of social media in background screenings of refugees and visa applicants.

“In an era where a growing number of communications takes place on Internet platforms, it would be foolish to ignore this goldmine of information,” U.S. Senators Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)stated in their December 15 letter to the President.  The letter was premised on the Department of Homeland Security’s findings that Tashfeen Malik, one of the attackers in the San Bernardino attack, had posted social media messages professing her radicalization prior to immigrating to the United States from Pakistan.  Malik’s apparent online discussions have raised concerns about how she was able to pass a background check that the government has described as rigorous.

The Senators urged President Obama to immediately adopt regulations to allow screening officials to check social media postings of applicants and to reject a “secret” U.S. policy prohibiting immigration officials from reviewing social media messages of all foreign citizens applying for visas.  “Knowledge is power, and denying your employees the ability to gain knowledge through basic research strips them of the full potential of their power to screen these applicants,” stated the Senators.

The letter follows legislation introduced by Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would require federal officials to comb through social media websites and publicly available information as part of the process for reviewing applications by foreigners seeking to enter the United States.  “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 stated.

This push for review of social media accounts reflects a swing in the opposite direction from the privacy concerns which resulted in the passage of legislation in 2012 by California, Delaware, Michigan, New Jersey, Maryland, and Illinois to prohibit businesses from demanding social media passwords.  The tension between strong security and privacy is well-known.  It has always been understood that more information allows for better decision-making and improved security.  Likewise, it is important to make sure that key privacy principles such as accuracy, notice, and consent be acknowledged in any process.  Finding the right balance is a challenge not just for government policy makers but also in the corporate environment.  However, experience has shown that this balance can be achieved with the proper controls and policies.