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Internet Privacy: Social Media and Search Warrants

The New York State Court of Appeals recently upheld a lower court’s verdict against Facebook’s claim that it had legal standing to challenge search warrants on behalf of its members. Facebook claimed that it had the ability to challenge search warrants that it saw as illegal before the warrants were executed. This verdict is considered a major setback for companies that seek to increase internet privacy.

What were the claims?

Facebook claims that, as an online entity which stores customer information, it had standing to contest search warrants brought to obtain information about its users, including, private personal messages and photographs. The company made the argument that search warrants for electronic information are different from a physical search of someone’s home. Someone else at a company has to do the searching, not the police, and more private information is accessible than would be found through a search of a defendant’s home. Therefore, Facebook claimed that the warrants served on social media companies are more like civil subpoenas for records and should be able to be challenged in court. Facebook also claimed its right to contest the warrants under the federal Stored Communications Act, but the court held that it had misinterpreted the law, which only applied to subpoenas and court orders. Although, the five-judge panel expressed concern over the scope of the search warrants and the large amounts of warrants executed, versus the small amount of those charged with a crime, however, it held that federal and state laws specify that the only person who can challenge a search warrant is the defendant.  In general, the challenge takes place at a hearing before the trial court.

Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the district attorney for Manhattan, claimed that the warrants were only used when there was probable cause to believe that further inspection of the defendant’s activities would show wrongdoing.   In this case, the crime was social security fraud.  Mr. Vance maintained that the warrants were legitimate and the government had the right to retain the information indefinitely.

What is the effect on companies that retain information?

This case was closely monitored by technology companies, which hold third party’s information. For example, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google, and New York Civil Liberties Union filed amicus briefs, which is a document that expresses the opinion of a party not involved in the case, but has an interest in the outcome. Due to this verdict, companies will have to comply with search warrants against their members without question and without informing them. The evidence can be challenged later, but it has already been obtained no matter how personal the information. Judge Renwick indicated there were troubling facts regarding the large amount of warrants and the ability of the information to be retained indefinitely. However, the ruling was final and those interested in internet privacy can wait and see if Facebook tries to appeal the ruling with the higher courts.

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