MANHATTAN (CN) – Despite strong support from Silicon Valley and its civil libertarian allies, Facebook failed to convince a New York appeals court to stop prosecutors from rummaging into the accounts of 381 of their users.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s office dropped the colossal search warrant request on July 23, 2013, as part of a large-scale investigation into the fraudulent filing of Social Security disability claims.
Its probe has been looking into whether a group of retired police officers and firefighters faked mental illness triggered by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Prosecutors have charged 62 people so far, but their bulk warrants aimed at hundreds of Facebook users.
The search warrants included a nondisclosure clause gagging Facebook from telling their customers that they were being investigated.
New York County Judge Melissa Jackson refused to let Facebook quash the warrants or amend the confidentiality restrictions.
Several Silicon Valley companies and civil libertarian groups, including Twitter, Yelp, Google, Dropbox, Pinterest and the American Civil Liberties Union, rallied around Facebook’s appeal as an important fight for user privacy.
None of their protests, however, convinced any of the five judges sitting on the New York Appellate Division, First Department on Tuesday.
Writing for the unanimous panel, Judge Dianne Renwick noted that the court’s 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. “Facebook users share more intimate personal information through their Facebook accounts than may be revealed through rummaging about one’s home.”
Each of the search warrants sought “all” communications “24 broad categories” of information, according to the opinion.
But none of the judges believe that the Fourth Amendment gave Facebook the right to challenge the constitutionality of their customers’ warrants.
“Facebook cannot have it both ways,” the opinion states. “On the one hand, Facebook is seeking the right to litigate pre-enforcement the constitutionality of the warrants on its customers’ behalf. But neither the Constitution nor New York Criminal Procedure Law provides the targets of the warrant the right to such a pre-enforcement challenge. On the other hand, Facebook also wants the probable cause standard of warrants, while retaining the pre-execution adversary process of subpoenas. We see no basis for providing Facebook a greater right than its customers are afforded.”
Joan Vollero, a spokeswoman for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, noted that this decision marked “the third court to deny Facebook’s efforts to block lawful evidence gathering.”
She added that 108 people, “including four ringleaders,” pleaded guilty to felony charges for their roles in this massive disability fraud scheme that netted $24.7 million in forfeiture and restitution that had been stolen from taxpayers.
“In many cases, evidence on their Facebook accounts directly contradicted the lies the defendants told to the Social Security Administration,” she said.
A Facebook spokesperson emphasized in a statement that the social networking website still believes “overly broad search warrants – granting the government the ability to keep hundreds of people’s account information indefinitely – are unconstitutional and raise important concerns about the privacy of people’s online information.”
“The court’s decision today recognized our concerns about the scope and retention of the requests, and we are considering our options to keep fighting on behalf of the people who use our service,” the statement said.
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