“Since last summer, we’ve been fighting hard against a set of sweeping search warrants issued by a court in New York that demanded we turn over nearly all data from the accounts of 381 people who use our service, including photos, private messages and other information. This unprecedented request is by far the largest we’ve ever received—by a magnitude of more than ten—and we have argued that it was unconstitutional from the start,” says Facebook Deputy General Counsel Chris Sonderby.
“Of the 381 people whose accounts were the subject of these warrants, 62 were later charged in a disability fraud case. This means that no charges will be brought against more than 300 people whose data was sought by the government without prior notice to the people affected. The government also obtained gag orders that prohibited us from discussing this case and notifying any of the affected people until now.”
According to the New York Times, the “sweeping warrants” came during the investigation into a fraud case involving retired police officers, firefighters, and other civil servants who’ve been charged with filing fake disability claims. The information obtained from Facebook was crucial to the investigation, as photos taken from the site showed “disabled” people, well, not acting very disabled.
The Manhattan DA’s office says that multiple courts have already found Facebook’s protestations without merit.
“This was a massive scheme involving as many as 1,000 people who defrauded the federal government of more than $400 million in benefits,” said a spokeswoman for the Manhattan DA Cyrus R. Vance Jr. “The defendants in this case repeatedly lied to the government about their mental, physical and social capabilities. Their Facebook accounts told a different story. A judge found there was probable cause to execute search warrants, and two courts have already found Facebook’s claims without merit.”
That’s true, and Facebook said that they eventually complied with the data request only after they were denied in appeals court.
But now, they’ve filed another in their “continuing efforts to invalidate these sweeping warrants and to force the government to return the data it has seized and retained.”
This isn’t the first time that Facebook has pushed back against overbroad data requests. But this is the first time we’ve seen Facebook challenge the notion that they must comply with a warrant they deem in violation of their users’ Fourth Amendment rights.
Facebook has always had a decent relationship with law enforcement – one that is cooperative enough to have been accused of being a bit too chummy. But in their latest fight, Facebook’s pretty clear that this sort of “overreaching legal request” goes way too far.
“We believe search warrants for digital information should be specific and narrow in scope, just like warrants for physical evidence. These restrictions are critical to preventing overreaching legal requests and protecting people’s information,” says Sonderby.