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Facebook battles Manhattan DA over warrants for user data

NEW YORK — Facebook and the New York district attorney’s office are in a bitter fight over a privacy question that was bound to come up sooner or later in the digital age: Does a government demand for the entire contents of hundreds of Facebook accounts amount to an illegal search of people’s digital homes, and can a service provider like Facebook do anything to stop it?

In confidential legal documents unsealed Wednesday, Facebook argues that Manhattan prosecutors violated the constitutional rights of its users last year by demanding the nearly complete account data of 381 people, from pages they liked to their photos and private messages.


When the social networking company fought the data demands, a New York judge, Supreme Court Justice Melissa C. Jackson, ruled that Facebook had no standing to contest the search warrants since it was simply an online repository of data, not a target of the criminal investigation. To protect the secrecy of the investigation, the judge also barred the company from informing the affected users, a decision that also prevented the individuals from fighting the data requests themselves.

Late Wednesday, a few days after Facebook filed an appeal on the constitutional issues, the court unsealed the case, allowing the company to discuss it and inform the affected users.

The case pits the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches by the government against the needs of prosecutors to seek evidence from the digital sources where people increasingly store their most sensitive data.

In the Facebook case, the information gleaned from the accounts contributed to the highly publicized indictments in January and February of more than 130 police officers, firefighters, and other civil servants on charges of defrauding the Social Security system with fake disability claims. Photos posted on Facebook showed supposedly disabled people riding personal watercraft, teaching karate, deep-sea fishing, and performing other vigorous activities. Those photos supported other evidence, like wiretapped conversations, that prosecutors gathered in their three-year investigation.


“This was a massive scheme involving as many as 1,000 people who defrauded the federal government of more than $400 million in benefits,” said Joan Vollero, a spokeswoman for the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr. “The defendants in this case repeatedly lied to the government about their mental, physical, and social capabilities. Their Facebook accounts told a different story. A judge found there was probable cause to execute search warrants, and two courts have already found Facebook’s claims without merit.”

Facebook lawyers say they are continuing to press the fight because they are troubled both by the vast scope of the district attorney’s search warrants and by the judge’s ruling that the company had no legal standing to contest the warrants on behalf of the affected users.

Prosecutors said the investigation was continuing and more indictments could be coming.

The district attorney’s office said it had provided Jackson with evidence to support each of the individual warrants, including information from wiretaps and documents filed with the Social Security Administration.