Facebook just lost a key battle over search warrants

New York court ruling means Internet companies can't fight warrants on users' behalf.

Feb 29, 2020, 11:04 pm*

Tech

Eric Geller 

Eric Geller

Facebook has lost a state court case that could set a major precedent for how Internet companies can fight government search warrants.

A New York appeals court ruled Tuesday that Facebook could not object to search warrants that required it to turn over 381 people’s photos and communications. Instead, the court said, the users themselves had to file motions in their individual cases to suppress whatever evidence resulted from the searches.

The decision turned on an interpretation of the Stored Communications Act, a 1986 law that governs how Internet companies can and must respond to requests for digital records. Facebook argued that the law allowed it to fight search warrants on behalf of its users in the same way that it fought subpoenas and court orders, but the appeals court decided that that right did not extend to search warrants.

Google, Microsoft, and other major Internet companies filed briefs supporting Facebook’s position. These companies worry that removing their ability to protect user data en masse will lead to people reducing the amount of information they share. The personal information that Google, Facebook, and other Web services collect about their users is easily the most lucrative part of their operations, because it is used to create advertising profiles.

Facebook can appeal the appellate court’s decision to the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s top court. It has not yet decided whether to do that.

“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,” a Facebook spokesman told the New York Times.

The warrants at issue in the case stem from two-year-old cases in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office relating to Social Security fraud. The DA requested the defendants’ Facebook records to evaluate the claims they made to the Social Security Administration. A spokeswoman for the DA told Reuters that the resulting communications disproved the defendants’ original claims.

Facebook had argued that the searches violated its users’ Fourth Amendment rights, but a lower court dismissed that argument and cleared the DA to proceed with the investigations.

The Manhattan DA is Cyrus Vance, Jr., one of the nation’s most prominent supporters of broad government surveillance and law-enforcement backdoors in online services.

Photo via C_osett/Flickr (PD) 

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*First Published: Jul 22, 2015, 3:06 pm