An extensive review of the Westlaw legal database by Reuters reveals that law-enforcement agencies are increasingly obtaining search warrants to snoop into users’ Facebook accounts, often without the users — or their Facebook friends — ever knowing that authorities had combed through their accounts.
Since 2008, federal judges have granted at least two dozen warrants to search users’ accounts, 11 of which were granted in 2011 alone. The agencies most often involved are the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). Reuters reports that “the investigations range from arson to rape to terrorism.”
The information given up by Facebook to authorities includes the full range of activities: Wall posts, messages, status updates, links, videos, photos, calendar items and even rejected friend requests. This data comes in the form of “Neoprints” (a user’s total textual profile and activities) and “Photoprints” (snapshots of all photos a user has uploaded). Contact details, IP logs and group members are also included.
The terms of these warrants are posted in manuals, which appear to be created by Facebook. (An example of one of these manuals can be found here.) A Facebook representative would neither confirm nor deny whether the company created the manuals.
In none of the cases uncovered by Reuters did anyone challenge the legality of the searches, which could potentially violate citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights, the protection against unlawful search and seizure. The lack of challenges are likely because Facebook did not inform the users that their information was being accessed by law enforcement. This contrasts with Twitter’s policy to inform users when authorities have requested their private account information.
Facebook Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan tells Reuters that the social network regularly pushes back against police “fishing expeditions.” He would not, however, comment on the number of searches that the company had allowed law enforcement to conduct.