On declaring your social media presence in a visa application

Someone asked me my opinion on US visa applications now asking for social media handles:

“It’s complicated, and a lot depends on execution and timely review.

If there were a 9/11 style attack planned in the future, you can be sure the attackers would have some evidence of their ideologies on their public social media.

Similarly if you’re looking for a long-term visa but have an publicly anti-american philosophy, you’re probably going to be more trouble than it’s worth. There are probably other cases not obvious to us.

  • But the potential for misuse is vast. The system is opaque to the applicant and there is little/no way to appeal:
  • You could be prevented from traveling to participate in a protest if you have publicly written about it
  • Or from speaking at a conference on a topic the current administration does not encourage (climate change?) if it’s found you’re a better-known person in the community than is commonly known
  • Or you could be a victim of insensitivity about cultures. I can easily imagine someone who publicly posts ayats about life/temperance from the Quran, maybe typing in nastaliq, that to the average low-pay ICE employee look like extremist ideology even after translation
  • Similarly, if you’re a rockets/space enthusiast and post your photos of PSLV/GSLV launches because you’ve travelled there to watch the lift-off, you could be mistaken for a dangerous nutjob
  • Worse still is that lack of a social media presence (I don’t have Facebook or Instagram accounts) could be grounds for rejection. There have been cases of people who have wiped their phones because they did not want to hand over their passwords and their photos at the US border, who were detained for hours and pressured to hand everything over. There are tools made just for this and they invite more trouble than they solve.

It’s conceivable that there are regular review processes within the Homeland Security department for rejections, but the broader the review is (ie public) the better it will be. I certainly know that the DHS has incredibly powerful tools at its disposal, including Palantir.

But because I don’t know anything about the actual technologies and review policies, I don’t have a position on this.

  • ps:
    • The most common argument in favour of these is that if you don’t have anything to hide why do you have anything to fear. This is easily refutable: because I don’t know how you will judge me. My browsing history, my credit card purchases, my salary, my movements around the city on a given day – they’re all secret because there are real world consequences to people around me – my employer, my friends, the police – and in this case the DHS – knowing about them even if I have not broken laws.”

    Owning your data, offline

    Google’s services including Gmail, Drive etc went down for over 4 hours. I did not even know about this until now, nearly 24 hours after the incident; most of my documents are available offline, including email. Which made me articulate what I have long realised:

    This incident should be a wakeup call for owning your data and certainly having offline access to it. If you can’t even ‘reach’ your data because it’s in the Cloud, having perfect sync between all your devices does not mean much. Even if it’s a rare event – what if you need your own information right then?

    The other risk of having all your data on the Cloud without a pure-offline copy (such that files are first-class citizen – offline google docs files that need the docs.google.com Chrome client or app to open, do not count) is that you could be locked out of your own account. The journalist Mat Honan had his accounts broken into and held hostage/wiped out in 2012. Even if you’re not digitally attacked, it’s easy to be locked out.

    Maybe it’s worth giving up cross-device syncing and moving to a single-device setup like Jason Fried of Basecamp all the way back in 2010. He does not have a work computer and a home computer:

    > One powerful, portable, fast, machine with a high-rez screen and a clean desktop. I don’t really believe in dreams when it comes to hardware. These are the tools you use to do your job – you should have the best you can afford.

    If you must have multiple machines, sync them peer-to-peer using something like Resilio Sync, or its open source alternative SyncThing, both based on BitTorrent. Back up using Time Machine (if you’ve got Macs) or if you are even slightly technically inclined, via unidirectional rsync to an external hard drive connected to your machine.

    Above all, keep your data in open formats. Using a single backed up machine is no use if all your files live in, say, Evernote or OneNote. Can your files be read natively by open-source equivalents? Can they be _conveniently_ exported in bulk? There is no shortage of open formats for multiple types of data: CalDAV, CardDAV, Markdown, ogg, mobi, PDF, mbox – even Microsoft Office is a mostly known format. Do you store your data in a simple folder-tree structure instead of in a proprietary library – your photos may all be PNG but they may be in Apple Photos’ binary library format.

    You’ll give up the glamour and some ease of cloud-based, real-time collaborative, unstructured write-anywhere apps, but what you’ll gain is a lot more valuable – the ability to have anytime anywhere access to your own data, for years on end, worry-free. No one will be able to force you to continue using their software, pay a subscription, lock you out from your own files, leak them in a security breach, or ‘go down’ in an outage.

    When it comes to your files, your memories, your life, sticking to the basics is a good idea.

    Email Newsletters I like

    As someone who has never really gotten used to an algorithmic feed (not on Facebook or Instagram or Flipboard or Pocket; rarely on Twitter; never logged in to Google or Chrome), I’ve always liked my RSS feed of blogs and sites, now grown and pruned over nearly fifteen years, and, over the past five or so years, email newsletters.

    Newsletters and RSS feeds are great for Sunday-afternoon browsing and bookmarking to Instapaper, and I will then (hope to) read them over the week on the iPad, or on the Kindle, where my Instapaper account sends a daily digest. What a fantastic toolset of apps and devices we have.

    Here are some of my favourite newsletters:


    Exponential View (Azeem Azhar; weekly): a “Weekly Wondermissive [on] Future, Tech & Society”. Lots of focus on AI and cleantech.

    1confirmation (fortnightly): a fund’s newsletter. Blockchain and allied topics

    VeradiVerdict (Paul Veradittakit; weekly): Blockchain and allied topics)

    a16z monthly (Andreessen Horowitz; monthly): the fund’s newsletter. Broad range of software topics

    The Amazon Chronicles (Tim Carmody; weekly): All things Amazon. Currrently on hiatus because of Tim’s shoulder problems.

    Charged (Owen Williams; weekly): consumer tech


    Morning Brew (daily)

    CB Insights (Anand Samwal and others; daily)


    The Newsbury (fellow IIMK alumna Binal Doshi; weekdays): a fantastic roundup of India happenings.

    Recomendo (Kevin Kelly and others; weekly): “6 brief personal recommendations of cool stuff”

    NextDraft (Dave Pell): “The day’s moste fascinating news”

    Roden Explorers (Craig Mod; occasional): personal explorations; topicless

    Amazon Pay credit card

    If there is one reason I like using it, it’s the simplicity of its rewards program.

    The currency is Amazon Pay points; one point is one INR. You earn 5% on Amazon (Prime customer), 2% online and 1% offline (on a card swipe).

    On the same day that your bill is due, Amazon credits your month’s rewards into your Amazon Pay balance, available immediately to use.

    No calculation of rewards, no translation between currencies, no separate redemption process, no codes. It just works. Automatically.

    Applying and receiving the card was also unlike any other. A panel on Amazon.com stating I was eligible. A simple page listing the rewards program. Mobile number + OTP, and boom. A card appears on-screen; you can toggle between card number and CVV (also a nice touch). And a one-screen process to set the two-factor code for Indian cards. This meant I could begin using it online days before the physical card actually arrived.

    I’ve been told there are cards with better reward programs, but with me, simplicity will beat raw benefits every time.

    “This is your brain on silence”

    Turns out it’s not just the lack of noise that’s what’s beneficial about silence – silence actively improves areas of the brain.

    As it turned out, even though all the sounds had short-term neurological effects, not one of them had a lasting impact. Yet to her great surprise, Kirste found that two hours of silence per day prompted cell development in the hippocampus, the brain region related to the formation of memory, involving the senses. This was deeply puzzling: The total absence of input was having a more pronounced effect than any sort of input tested.

    It’s a great read. And Nautilus is a wonderful publication.