The New York Civil Liberties Union is throwing its support behind Facebook in a lawsuit the organization believes could have big implications for social media privacy in New York.
In July of last year, as part of an investigation into alleged social security fraud, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. sought search warrants for the contents of 381 Facebook accounts. The New York Supreme Court initially approved the disclosure of almost all the information contained in the accounts, including private chats, friends lists and comments posted on the site. The DA also managed to get the court to grant a gag order preventing Facebook from revealing the warrants to the targeted users.
Facebook appealed on the grounds that the warrants and gag order were unconstitutional in their scope, having no date restrictions and no way to limit the search to just the information relevant to the investigation.
In a testy response that only emerged much later, lawyers for the DA argued that Facebook’ concerns are “based solely on their ignorance about the nature and extent of the criminal activity under investigation.” They asserted that the warrants weren’t overly broad, because they’d provided the court with detailed information about their reasons for seeking each account. The DA wrote, somewhat sarcastically, that “since Facebook seems concerned that these warrants were issued on the basis of a single affidavit … it may relieve some of their anxiety to know that the affidavit in question was 93 pages long.”
Shortly after Facebook appealed the judge’s ruling on the warrants, the DA moved for the gag order to be dropped, and has since argued that the appeal is now irrelevant, and should be dismissed. Dismissing the appeal would keep the court from ruling on whether the DA’s tactics were legal in the first place. The NYCLU’s amici or “friend of the court” brief argues that the lawsuit should be allowed to continue, to ensure that the DA doesn’t try the same approach in the future.
The NYCLU’s brief cites a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Riley v. California, that upheld stringent protections on cell phone searches, a decision that was hailed as a major victory by privacy advocates. In a rare unanimous decision, the court said that modern technological devices contain so much detail about a person’s life — their relationships, medical histories and other sensitive information — that a search of a cell phone wasn’t comparable to, say, a search of the trunk of a car.
The NYCLU is hoping the same argument might apply to a user’s Facebook account, which also probably contains some sensitive information. NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman, in a press release, said “government entities shouldn’t be conducting broad fishing expeditions into our personal and social conversations with our family and friends with no regard to our privacy.”
Read the NYCLU brief, and the DA’s brief but pretty entertaining filing, on the next page.
Read the NYCLU’s filing below, and the DA’s response to Facebook’s original motion on the next page.