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Facebook tastes its own medicine, forced to hand over user information

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In what may be viewed as a blow to civil liberties in the digital age, Facebook has lost its appeal seeking to block a number of New York search warrants. A unanimous ruling by a Manhattan panel of five judges found that the social media giant “does not have the power to ask a judge to throw out search warrants before they have been executed.” According to Facebook, this decision may force the company to turn over the largest set of data in their history to law enforcement officials, affecting information from 381 users.

In the ruling, Judge Dianne T. Renwick stated, “There is no constitutional or statutory right to challenge an allegedly defective warrant before it is executed,” rejecting the tech company’s assertion that they are entitled to judge whether certain searches of their users’ files are legal or not. While Facebook claims that social media search warrants are more similar to civil subpoenas for records (which can be challenged in court, unlike warrants for physical searches police perform on homes, vehicles, or persons), neither this latest panel of judges nor a lower court agreed with the company’s view.

Other tech companies sided solidly with Zuckerberg and his team, with Google, LinkedIn, and Twitter filing amicus briefs (along with the New York Civil Liberties Union). In an email to the New York Times, Facebook spokesperson Jay Nancarrow wrote, “We continue to believe 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.” That being said, however, Facebook has not decided whether it will further appeal the decision.

The court in its decision stressed that it did not intend to undermine privacy rights (showing a concern for users’ information that Facebook itself might want to emulate). Wrote Renwick, “Our holding today does not mean that we do not appreciate Facebook’s concerns about the scope of the bulk warrants issued here or about the district attorney’s alleged right to indefinitely retain the seized accounts of the uncharged Facebook users. Facebook users share more intimate personal information through their Facebook accounts than may be revealed through rummaging about one’s home.”

In terms of the case itself, thus far, 108 of the accused have plead guilty to felony charges arising from fraudulent representations they made concerning their disabilities, resulting in a total of $24.7 million in fines. With or without the Facebook information, it seems plain enough that the prosecution’s case has met with considerable success. But what Tuesday’s decision means for the use of social media information in court moving forward has yet to be determined.

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