The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a motion for leave to file an amicus brief today recommending that the New York Court of Appeals reverse a lower court’s decision barring Facebook from protecting the privacy of its users against sweeping search warrants issued by the Manhattan district attorney. The request comes after the court agreed to hear the case in December of last year.
“Every day, tens of millions of Americans share intimate details of their lives with their friends and family on Facebook,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Mariko Hirose. “The company has every right to protect its users from secretive and invasive government searches, especially when those people have no way of stopping this violation of privacy themselves.”
Nearly 80 percent of Internet users in America use Facebook, and their accounts contain a wealth of private communications and personal information. In July 2013, the Manhattan DA secured a set of warrants in relation to a social security fraud investigation that directed Facebook to produce virtually every communication from 381 accounts, including private messages, chat histories, photographs, group memberships, comments posted on pages of friends and family, and comments by friends and family to these individuals. The DA’s office has not made any commitments to either return or destroy the information it recovered during its searches, even though the warrants were issued more than three years ago and the vast majority of the users whose accounts it investigated (319 out of 381) were never charged, let alone found guilty of a crime.
The NYCLU contends that the Appellate Division First Department incorrectly ruled that Facebook does not have the authority to object to the DA’s request. .
Concerns about protecting people‘s private information from the government are heightened in anticipation of Donald J. Trump’s upcoming inauguration. President-elect Trump has openly supported mass surveillance and curtailing the First Amendment. Given his campaign promises to target vulnerable groups of people, it is more important than ever to ensure there are reasonable safeguards to protect people’s private information. Since owners of the Facebook accounts may have no way of knowing if the government is seizing their personal information, Facebook may be one of the few lines of defense against widespread violations of privacy.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Center for Democracy & Technology joined the NYCLU on the motion and brief.