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Massive Digital Privacy Rights on the Line in NY

(CN) - New York's highest court will decide whether authorities overstepped in probing police officers and firefighters suspected of fraudulently obtaining benefits meant for first responders traumatized by the attacks on the World Trade Center.

The case stems from a bulk warrant that the Manhattan District Attorney's Office presented Facebook a little more than two years ago as 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 attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

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.

After two tiers of New York courts upheld the warrants, three other rights groups and 10 tech companies joined the New York Civil Liberties Union in urging reconsideration of the decision, saying the case "impacts the digital privacy and expressive rights of every New Yorker."

Facebook won review from the New York Court of Appeals on Wednesday.

In its 38-page amicus brief, the NYCLU had said the "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 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 filed two amicus briefs, one led by FourSquare, joined by Kickstarter, Meetup and Vimeo, another led by Dropbox, joined by Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yelp.

FourSquare ripped the warrant 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," it said.

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 brief says.

In upholding the warrant this past July, a three-judge panel of New York's Appellate Division expressed concerns about the breadth of the search.

Judge Dianne Renwick wrote for First Appellate Department that 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," Renwick wrote in July.

The brief had said that the "double bind in which these decisions leave online platforms is unlawful."

The high court accepted amicus briefs from four civil liberties groups, and 10 tech companies.

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