In a major setback for privacy advocates who seek to preserve the confidentiality of consumer data, the New York Supreme Court recently ruled that Facebook lacks legal standing to challenge search warrants on behalf of its users. The case pits Facebook against the government, which had requested account data for 381 Facebook users as part of an in-depth investigation into over 1,000 people who allegedly cost the government over $400 million in benefits due to false disability claims.
The government demanded that Facebook hand over all of the account information of the 381 users and sought to place a gag order on Facebook, forbidding it from notifying any user that his or her account information was being investigated. Facebook challenged the warrant, arguing that the request for the data was overbroad. In fact, although the government only ended up primarily using photos from 130 user accounts and only 62 users were charged with a crime, it held all of the photos, biographical information, and message history from all 381 accounts. Facebook asked that the government’s request be limited, as holding such a massive amount of information was unnecessary in Facebook’s eyes. Facebook also argued that the gag order violated the company’s privacy policies, and it owed a legal obligation to its users to notify them if their information was being used by a third-party.
The court rejected Facebook’s arguments. The court reasoned that the government’s request was lawful because procedural safeguards were in place to ensure the constitutionality of any seized evidence, such as probable cause and an examination of the evidence’s admissibility. The court further stated that the government held the authority to gather such a large amount of data because, as the court put it: “In the course of a long-term criminal investigation, the relevance or irrelevance of items seized within the scope of a search warrant may be unclear and require further investigatory steps.” As for the gag request, the court held that any knowledge of the investigation outside of the court could have resulted in the tampering with vital evidence, as users could have altered profile information had they known their accounts were being investigated. The court’s decision stands as a warning to social media users to be wary of the vast amounts of data they upload to companies who might be asked to turn that data over to the government.