A New York State Appeals Court has ruled in late July 2015 that Facebook cannot challenge search warrants seeking private account information about the company’s users. The ruling came as a significant defeat for Facebook, Google, Pinterest, and privacy advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
The underlying case involved 381 Facebook users suspected of Social Security fraud. In 2013, the Manhattan District Attorney served search warrants for Facebook’s information on those users, including photographs, “likes,” and private messages. Criminal warrants such as those served on Facebook can be challenged only after law enforcement has gathered evidence. In that case, 62 Facebook users, including policemen and firemen falsely claiming disabilities after the 9/11 attacks, were indicted for Social Security fraud.
Facebook, supported by Google, Pinterest and the American Civil Liberties Union, challenged the warrants, alleging that the Facebook should be allowed to contest the warrants as it contests civil subpoenas, challenging them in behalf of its users and before the information is gathered.
The 5 Appellate Court justices heartily disagreed with Facebook, stating there is no law allowing defendant to challenge criminal warrants before they’re enforced and “We see no basis for providing Facebook a greater right than its customers are afforded.”
Facebook has not indicated whether it intends to appeal the decision but did state that “overly broad search warrants — granting the government the ability to keep hundreds of people’s account information indefinitely — are unconstitutional and raise important concerns about the privacy of people’s online information.”
The case presents important privacy issues for Facebook’s 1.4 billion active users. Consequently, Facebook’s Help page allows users to download their account information to a zip file to see what might be released pursuant to a search warrant. Facebook’s “take” on the case and access to the Help center can be found here:https://www.facebook.com/safety/groups/law/guidelines/
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