Facebook loses appeal over access to user data

Story highlights

  • New York state appeals court rules that Facebook cannot protect users against search warrants
  • The case pitted the social networking giant against the Manhattan District Attorney's office
  • The decision raises crucial issues in the digital age, says New York Civil Liberties Union

(CNN)You think your Facebook profile is private? Think again.

In a decision that raises crucial issues in the digital age, a New York state appeals court ruled this week that Facebook cannot protect users against search warrants obtained by law enforcement officials to access users' digital information.
The case pitted the social networking giant against the Manhattan district attorney's office.
    The appellate court decided on Tuesday that Facebook does not have the right to challenge 381 search warrants, issued by Manhattan prosecutors, seeking access to users' profile information in a massive social security fraud investigation.
    Google, Pinterest, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yelp were among the tech companies that filed briefs in support of Facebook's legal challenge.
    The case has raised privacy concerns over digital information and what the government can do in terms of accessing social media accounts, said Mariko Hirose, an attorney who focuses on privacy and freedom of speech for the New York Civil Liberties Union.
    The biggest concern involves the government claim that it was proper to obtain all the digital information and keep it for an unlimited time period, even for those people who they aren't going to indict, according to the NYACLU, which supported Facebook in the case.
    "The major implication for Facebook users is not having a way to have their privacy rights protected before the government obtains their data," Hirose said. "If Facebook doesn't have the right to challenge those search warrants, its customers lose one layer of protection against the violation of their privacy rights."
    The search warrants at the heart of the case were issued in July of 2013 as part of an investigation into a social security disability scam for which more than 100 retired New York City police officers and firefighters were indicted in January of 2014.
    Prosecutors said the search warrants used to obtain access to Facebook accounts helped them indict people who lied about their psychiatric conditions and disabilities in order to obtain benefits. Evidence of alleged fraud was found in images posted to Facebook accounts.
    The DA's office defended the warrants as "a legitimate governmental action to aid an expansive investigation," according to the ruling. The warrants said there was "reasonable cause to believe" the Facebook accounts "constituted evidence of offenses that included grand larceny in the second degree, grand larceny in the third degree, filing of a false instrument in the first degree, and conspiracy."
    Of the 381 people whose accounts were the subject of those warrants, only 62 were charged in the disability fraud case. That meant that no charges were filed against more than 300 people whose personal data was accessed by the government, and there are no limits on how long the government can retain the account information obtained through the warrant, according to Facebook.
    Citing Fourth Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures, Facebook claimed the search warrants were unconstitutional.
    But law enforcement officials demanded that Facebook turn over nearly all data, including photos, private messages and other information, without informing the people whose accounts were searched.
    Facebook representatives told CNN the company is considering its legal options.
    "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," Facebook spokesman, Jay Nancarrow, said.
    Still, the Manhattan District Attorney's office defended its win.
    Joan Vollero, a spokeswoman for the district attorney said 108 people -- including four ringleaders -- have so far pleaded guilty to felony charges for their roles in the disability fraud scheme.
    "In doing so, they admitted to lying to the federal government about their day-to-day activities and psychiatric conditions," Vollero said.
    In an email statement, Vollero said that as part of their sentences the defendants were ordered to pay back more than $24.7 million in restitution on the money stolen from U.S. taxpayers.
    Other cases across the nation have touched on the complex relationship between the privacy of users and Facebook's ability to protect it.
    Last year, a federal judge in New Jersey ruled that law enforcement can create fake social network profiles in order to search through a suspect's account.
    In 2012, a federal judge in New York ruled that a gang member who had shared incriminating posts and information online lost all claims to privacy when he shared those details with friends, who then shared it with the government.
    Law enforcement officials throughout the country are increasingly turning to social media and modern technology to help them in preventing and investigating crime, according to a 2014 LexisNexis survey.
    "The frequency of social media use by law enforcement, while already high, is projected to rise even further in the coming years," the survey said.