Fighting Bulk Search Warrants In Court

By Chris Sonderby, Facebook Deputy General Counsel

Our goal is to protect people’s information on Facebook, so when a government requests data, it’s a big deal to us. We have strict policies in place for law enforcement requests and have published these procedures publicly for anyone to review.

Our team scrutinizes each request we receive individually and checks for legally valid and complete documentation from law enforcement. We regularly push back on requests that are vague or overly broad. Our recent Government Requests report here has more details.

Since last summer, we’ve been fighting hard against a set of sweeping search warrants issued by a court in New York that demanded we turn over nearly all data from the accounts of 381 people who use our service, including photos, private messages and other information. This unprecedented request is by far the largest we’ve ever received—by a magnitude of more than ten—and we have argued that it was unconstitutional from the start.

Of the 381 people whose accounts were the subject of these warrants, 62 were later charged in a disability fraud case. This means that no charges will be brought against more than 300 people whose data was sought by the government without prior notice to the people affected. The government also obtained gag orders that prohibited us from discussing this case and notifying any of the affected people until now.

We’ve gone to court and repeatedly asserted that these overly broad warrants–which contain no date restrictions and allow the government to keep the seized data indefinitely–violate the privacy rights of the people on Facebook and ignore Fourth Amendment safeguards against unreasonable searches and seizures. We fought forcefully against these 381 requests and were told by a lower court that as an online service provider we didn’t even have the legal standing to contest the warrants. We complied only after the appeals court denied our application to stay this ruling, and after the prosecutor filed a motion to find us in criminal contempt.

Last Friday, we filed an appellate brief in support of our continuing efforts to invalidate these sweeping warrants and to force the government to return the data it has seized and retained.  Immediately after we filed our appeal, the government moved to unseal the warrants and all court filings, which has allowed us to finally notify the people whose accounts were affected about the warrants and our ongoing legal efforts.

But we feel strongly that there is more work to do, and we will continue our legal fight to retrieve data that has been seized and retained by the government.  We recognize that law enforcement needs to investigate potential crimes, but we believe all government data requests must be narrowly tailored, proportionate to the case, and subject to strict judicial oversight. Moreover, we believe search warrants for digital information should be specific and narrow in scope, just like warrants for physical evidence. These restrictions are critical to preventing overreaching legal requests and protecting people’s information.

We will continue to fight on your behalf, and we recognize the importance of this responsibility. We look forward to keeping you updated about our progress.

Fighting Bulk Search Warrants In Court

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