Facebook Clashes with New York City Prosecutors (and New York Courts) over Privacy of Member Details

Saturday, June 28, 2014
(graphic: Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Social media giant Facebook is locked in a fight with a New York City prosecutor, as well as the state’s courts over search warrants seeking information about hundreds of users.


The Manhattan district attorney’s office has sought access to the Facebook accounts belonging to 381 people as part of an investigation into public workers, including police officers and firefighters, accused of defrauding the government with fake disability claims. A spokeswoman for the DA’s office, Joan Vollero, told The New York Times that it was important to see the Facebook records of the subjects because some posted photos demonstrated that the men and women in question were not really disabled.


News of the case was released shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 25 that cellphones could not be searched without a warrant. “In that case, they were talking about how revealing the information could be on a cellphone. You could make a similar point about people’s social media profiles,” Kurt Opsahl, deputy general counsel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told the Times.


Facebook’s executives have refused to comply with the warrants, saying it is compelled to protect the privacy of its users. The company says in court documents that local prosecutors have violated the constitutional right of its users by demanding nearly all information in their Facebook accounts—a demand it insists runs counter to the Fourth Amendment, which protects against illegal searches and seizures.


Facebook’s argument was rejected by New York Supreme Court Justice Melissa C. Jackson, who ruled the site had no legal grounds for its objection. In the eyes of the law, Facebook is merely a “repository of data, not a target of the criminal investigation,” the Times’ Vindu Goel and James McKinley Jr. wrote.


The judge went even further and ordered Facebook not to tell its users about the warrants, which would mean the individuals had no idea what was going on and could not launch their own legal fight to contest the searches. The court said that the 62 people charged could challenge the searches before a trial. However, that doesn’t address the violations of the rights of the more than 80% of those whose accounts were searched and who weren’t charged.


Attorneys for Facebook are now appealing the ruling to a New York appellate court. According to the EFF, the Stored Communications Act, on which the warrants were based, specifically allows service providers to challenge such orders.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Forced to Hand Over Data, Facebook Files Appeal (by Vindu Goel and James McKinley Jr., New York Times)

PRISM, Local Edition: NY DA Employs 381 Secret Orders to Gather Complete Digital Dossiers from Facebook (by Kurt Opsahl, Electronic Frontier Foundation)

Court Decision (New York Supreme Court) (pdf)


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