Court Limits Scope of Search Warrants for Facebook Data

(CN) – A Superior Court judge in the District of Columbia on Thursday moved to limit the  scope of search warrants obtained by federal investigators for Facebook data in connection with an ongoing investigation into rioting during President Trump’s inauguration.

The order by the court’s chief judge, Robert Morin blocks the Justice Department from viewing identifying information on innocent third-party Facebook users who interacted with a page used to organize protests against President Trump on Jan. 20.

More than 200 individuals were arrested on felony rioting charges in connection with the protests. The warrants cover data from the accounts and page limited to the three months between Nov. 1, 2016, and Feb. 9, 2017.

As recounted in the ruling, the case stems from federal warrants that targeted the personal Facebook accounts of two local D.C. activists as well as the public Facebook page for DisruptJ20, which has since been rebranded as “Resist This.”

The American Civil Liberties Union sought to quash the government search warrants targeting the accounts and page, arguing that they are too broad and raised First and Fourth Amendment concerns.

Morin said he wanted to set “procedural safeguards” to protect the rights of individuals whose data may be caught up in the search of the Facebook page but who are otherwise not connected to the investigation.

He directed Facebook to hand over the data in redacted form so that it omits identifying information on individuals that are not the account holder. The redactions would only be removed if the government successfully demonstrates to the court that it constitutes possible evidence of crime.

The safeguards are nearly identical to those instituted by the court in a similar case involving web hosting company DreamHost.

However, the court denied the individual account holders’ motion to intervene formally in the case to challenge the warrants targeting their Facebook accounts and the page.

The court also rejected a request  from  the American Civil Liberties Union that the court appoint what is known as a “special master” to review the data from Facebook before turning it over to the government.

In a statement, ACLU senior staff attorney Scott Michelman said, “The court agreed to impose safeguards to protect political activity and third-party communications from government snooping, but was not equally careful to protect our clients’ private and personal communications.”

In October, the government agreed to narrow its request for information on the public page to exclude the identities of individuals who liked or followed it.

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