New York - Facebook and the Manhattan district attorney’s office are in a bitter fight over the government’s demand for the contents of hundreds of Facebook accounts.
In confidential legal documents unsealed Wednesday, Facebook argues that Manhattan prosecutors last summer violated the constitutional right of its users to be free of unreasonable searches by demanding nearly complete account data on 381 people, ranging from pages they had liked to photos and private messages.
When the social networking company fought the data demands, a New York judge ruled that Facebook had no standing to contest the search warrants since it was simply an online repository of data, not a target of the criminal investigation. To protect the secrecy of the investigation, the judge also barred the company from informing the affected users, a decision that also prevented the individuals from fighting the data requests themselves.
The case, which is on appeal, pits the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches by the government against the needs of prosecutors to seek evidence from the digital sources where people increasingly store their most sensitive data.
Lawyers for Facebook, which has about 1.28 billion active users worldwide, said they were pressing the fight in the appellate courts because they were troubled both by the vast scope of the district attorney’s search warrants and by the judge’s ruling that Facebook could not challenge the warrants.
"The government’s bulk warrants, which demand ‘all’ communications and information in 24 broad categories from the 381 targeted accounts, are the digital equivalent of seizing everything in someone’s home," Facebook wrote in a brief to the appeals court. "The vast scope of the government’s search and seizure here would be unthinkable in the physical world."
Lee Rowland, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the breadth of the search warrants, which had no time limits or any limits on topics, was troubling. It strains belief, she said, that every posting, picture and message in the Facebook files turned over to the state were necessary to the case.
"It’s incredibly important in the digital context to prevent government fishing expeditions," she said.
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