Facebook fights government access to user records

If you're trying to defraud Social Security with claims of disabilities so severe you can't leave the house, don't post photos on Facebook (FB) of yourself riding a water scooter, teaching karate or fishing off the coast of Costa Rica.

That was the lesson learned by dozens of retired New York City police officers and firefighters who were charged earlier this year for collecting fraudulent disability awards.

But Facebook wants to teach the Manhattan District Attorney's office a lesson here, too -- mainly that it isn't right to endlessly comb through user accounts hunting for evidence.

Facebook says its user accounts should not be subject to unreasonable searches. The company is arguing that when Manhattan prosecutors demanded full account data on 381 people last summer -- including their photos and private messages -- they stepped over the line.

Initially, it seemed pretty easy for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. to get the information he sought from Facebook about the retired officers and firefighters. The New York Supreme Court appeared to approve his request without blinking an eye.

But Facebook argued that authorities shouldn't have such broad access. There were no start and end dates to work with, for example, and there was no way to focus the search on just the relevant information.

A judge ruled against Facebook, however, adding that the company wasn't allowed to tell its users that they were the subjects of an investigation. Facebook isn't giving up the fight, and is appealing the decision.

The case goes far beyond those retired police officers allegedly scamming the system. People are increasingly sharing every detail of their lives online, and Facebook, Google (GOOG) and other companies are becoming vast repositories of personal, revealing and potentially incriminating information.

In the pre-digital age, authorities had to request search warrants for specific attempts to get information, such as tapping a phone or looking through a home office. But now, when that key information is stored on Facebook's servers, how much freedom do prosecutors have to roam through it?

Vance's office is trying to get Facebook's appeal dismissed -- which would keep a court from ruling on whether Vance stepped over the line, The Village Voice reports. "Prosecutors have a right and a responsibility to collect evidence in criminal cases, wherever that information is stored," a spokeswoman for Vance's office told The Associated Press Monday.

Facebook is lining up some allies in its fight. The New York Civil Liberties Union is weighing in with a legal brief arguing that the case should be allowed to continue. Other social media companies are seeking to join the case as well, including Foursquare, Kickstarter, Meetup and Tumbler, AP reports.

Some legal experts seem to think that Facebook is fighting an unwinnable war. After all, the courts have a longstanding tradition of giving prosecutors a considerable amount of latitude when it comes to building cases against suspects.

"The real question is, 'Can [Facebook] challenge warrants for their customers?' Orin S. Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University, said in an interview with The New York Times. "And I think the answer is probably not, under current law."

  • Kim Peterson

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