Facebook Fights Manhattan DA Over Demands For User Accounts
June 27, 2014

Facebook Fights Manhattan DA Over Demands For User Accounts

Peter Suciu for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

The New York Times reported on Thursday that social media giant Facebook is facing off with the Manhattan district attorney. The fight reportedly revolves around the government's demand for the contents of hundreds of Facebook accounts.

Confidential legal documents, which were unsealed on Wednesday, revealed that the social network has argued that Manhattan prosecutors last summer allegedly violated the constitutional rights of its users to be free of unreasonable searches. Prosecutors had reportedly demanded nearly complete account data on 381 people, and this included information on private messages, photos and even pages they liked.

While the investigation led to 130 of those individuals being indicted for allegedly defrauding the Social Security system, and 62 were charged in a disability fraud case, Facebook contented that the warrants used to get the information was too broad, and has argued that there was little it could do to say no or even alert the users.

The social media giant contends that the bulk warrants violated the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches or seizure of property.

"The Fourth Amendment does not permit the government to seize, examine and keep indefinitely the private messages, photographs, videos and other communications of nearly 400 people, the vast majority of whom will never know the government has obtained and continues to possess their personal information," Facebook argued in the brief to the appeals court.

Last week Facebook asked the appellate division of the New York State Supreme Court to force the DA's office to return the data it had seized and retained.

The Manhattan DA's office sees this case differently however, citing the scope of its investigation.

"This was a massive scheme involving as many as 1,000 people who defrauded the federal government of more than $400 million in benefits," Joan Vollero, a spokeswoman for the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr. told The New York Times. "The defendants in this case repeatedly lied to the government about their mental, physical and social capabilities. Their Facebook accounts told a different story. A judge found there was probable cause to execute search warrants, and two courts have already found Facebook's claims without merit."

Facebook has vowed to fight requests for its users' personal data, and noted that this request was one of the largest it had ever received "by a magnitude of more than ten."

"Our goal is to protect people's information on Facebook, so when a government requests data, it’s a big deal to us," wrote Chris Sonderby, Facebook deputy general counsel, in a company newsroom post. "We have strict policies in place for law enforcement requests and have published these procedures publicly for anyone to review. Our team scrutinizes each request we receive individually and checks for legally valid and complete documentation from law enforcement. We regularly push back on requests that are vague or overly broad."

Privacy advocates also called out the Manhattan DA's office for being overzealous, and Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote in a blog post on Thursday, "Unfortunately, it appears that the lure of bulk surveillance is not just a temptation for the federal government. Last summer, about a month after new leaks exposed the NSA's bulk content PRISM program, Cyrus Vance, Jr., the District Attorney for Manhattan, decided to go secretly fishing through 381 Facebook accounts, and wanted to ensure no one was allowed to stop him."

Opsahl added, "Sometimes 'come back with a warrant' is not enough. The warrant must also conform to constitutional limitations, narrowly seeking evidence of a crime with particularity, based on probable cause. It is not a license for the government to rifle through the private lives of anyone it suspects. As the Supreme Court recognized just yesterday, the Fourth Amendment was the founding generation’s response to the reviled 'general warrants' and 'writs of assistance' of the colonial era, which allowed British officers to rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of criminal activity."

This is also not the first time that Manhattan prosecutors have sought to gather evidence from social media. In 2012, Manhattan prosecutors issued a subpoena to Twitter and demanded that the micro-blog hand over deleted messages that had been posted by an Occupy Wall Street protestor. Twitter surrendered messages written by the protestor to a New York criminal court judge.