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Friday, July 19, 2024 | Back issues
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Facebook’s Friends Seek Ear of NY’s High Court

MANHATTAN (CN) - Flagging an "important case that impacts the digital privacy and expressive rights of every New Yorker," the New York Civil Liberties Union joined three other rights groups and four tech companies urging reconsideration of a decision to allow prosecutors to rummage through the accounts of 381 Facebook users.

A little more than two years ago, the Manhattan District Attorney's office presented Facebook with a bulk warrant, part of a large-scale investigation into the fraudulent filing of Social Security disability claims.

Prosecutors wanted to pin down whether a group of retired police officers and firefighters faked mental illness triggered by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

As of a few months ago, the probe led to charges against 62 people, but the bulk warrants named hundreds of Facebook accounts - and gagged the website from informing the targets about the requests.

Although two tiers of courts here upheld the warrants, Facebook has sought review of the New York Court of Appeals.

On Monday, four civil liberties groups and four Empire State tech companies urged the high court to hear the case.

"This case raises important questions that impact the digital privacy and expressive rights of every New Yorker, including the threshold question of whether companies like Facebook have the right to challenge an order to produce its customers' records on the basis of its customers' privacy rights," the New York Civil Liberties Union wrote in its 38-page amicus brief.

The American Civil Liberties Union also joined the brief with the NYU Law Chapter of the American Constitution Society and the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

The tech companies - FourSquare, Kickstarter, Meetup and Vimeo - ripped the warrants in the case as "draconian."

"Facebook was conscripted to perform a dragnet search and produce massive amounts of data contained in 381 user accounts and prohibited from notifying its users that their personal information had been targeted," the tech companies noted in a separate brief.

For smaller and mid-size tech companies, such a request would put them "between a rock and a hard place," the brief continues.

"To act as custodians of their users' private information, such companies must have the choice to either object to unlawful government intrusions or notify users of such intrusions. The First Department's decision, as well as the trial court order it left in place, denies both options. The double bind in which these decisions leave online platforms is unlawful," the brief says.

In July, the New York Appellate Division, First Department expressed concerns about the breadth of the warrants, even though the unanimous panel found them lawful.

Judge Dianne Renwick wrote for the court in July their decision has the "power to affect the everyday lives of all U.S. residents, not just criminal suspects and defendants."

"Our holding today does not mean that we do not appreciate Facebook's concerns about the scope of the bulk warrants issued here or about the District Attorney's alleged right to indefinitely retain the seized accounts of the uncharged Facebook users," she wrote at the time.

The New York District Attorney's Office declined to comment.

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