On Tuesday, April 4, a New York state court denied Facebook’s objection to a slew of search warrants that demanded access to 381 user accounts. Facebook argued that the warrants—all issued by the News York State Attorney’s Office—violated a person’s right to privacy, including privacy rights outlined in the Constitution. As with the warrant obtained in the playpen case, Facebook argued that the warrant went too far. It exceeded justifiable limitations, Facebook and their supporters explained.
The News York State Attorney’s Office issued the warrants in 2013 after authorities concluded that many users committed social security fraud at as widespread” level. Facebook’s appeal raised support from companies throughout the sector. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Twitter all backed Facebook’s appeal. Incidentally, some of these companies recently fought legal battles of their own—often against the FBI or similar federal agency.
Facebook’s summary of their 6,987 word appeal:
“The First Department’s startling suggestion that “the Fourth Amendment’s protections are potentially far weaker” when “applied to information stored online” turns a growing body of federal and state case law on its head. It also reflects a flawed understanding of the Fourth Amendment that threatens individual privacy if not corrected by this Court.”
Microsoft, for instance, fought to keep the US from obtaining data stored offshore in relation to the case against Gary Davis, an assisted Silk Road admin. And Apple, of course, fought the FBI for months over the iPhone that belonged to the San Bernardino shooter. They specifically fought a battle wherein the FBI claimed only Apple could provide the assistance needed. With third-party firms across the globe offering to unlock the phone, the FBI needed Apple only for a precedent that the FBI’s victory could and likely would set for future cases.
Facebook also fought the warrants because the U.S. required that the company stay quiet, and effectively leave users in the dark. Among those targeted were retired police officers and firefighters. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr believed that they committed social security fraud and faked an illness after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.
Facebook complied with the warrants but continued with the appeal. After authorities executed the warrants, Facebook’s objection—that the scope extended beyond the depth needed for the investigation—became glaringly obvious in accuracy. Authorities only indicted 62 Facebook users.
Judge Leslie Stein stated that Facebook’s appeal carried no weight. The warrants only involved Facebook as a middleman; the warrants targeted suspects that used Facebook. Each user targeted by the warrant just file their own appeal, she explained.
This loss represented a step in the wrong direction for bodies like Facebook, the EFF, and many others—some of whom vocally supported Facebook. The warrant, in a way, resembled the warranty used in the playpen case. The scale differed tremendously but in that case, defendants appealed the evidence obtained with the warrant. Judges dismissed the evidence on the grounds that it was illegally obtained. In fact, in a move that made the entire situation even murkier, the DoJ ruled against the FBI and dismissed a suspect.
Sadly, none of the suspects caught via the dragnet warrant filed appeals their own appeals.