Facebook Calls Out Search Warrants


Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/spencereholtaway/

Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) claims that the social media giant is looking out for its users when it receives search warrants and other legal requests from law enforcement. In a blog post, a member of Facebook’s legal representation wrote that the company tries to fight back against overly large or vague requests.

“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,” wrote Chris Sonderby, Facebook Deputy General Counsel.

Much of the blog post focuses on a case that started in July 2013 to illustrate its point. Facebook initially fought a series of search warrants in a case in New York State. The court issued search warrants requested access to more than 380 individuals’ profiles including photos and private messages on the request of a district attorney. Facebook denied the search warrants, filing an appeal asking for a more specific set of search warrants. The higher court upheld the previous search warrants, forcing Facebook to provide the information or get into legal trouble.

“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.”

Facebook has additionally published a graphic with a timeline for this particular incident, illustrating each step in the yearlong legal battle. The case was recently unsealed by the court, allowing Facebook to inform users and write publicly about the incident, which it has done in this case.

It’s no secret that social media information can be used in legal settings, particularly information that is published publicly. A search warrant may be used to request additional information. Facebook regularly releases how many it receives as a part of its Government Request Reports. For American requests, these are published every six months. The most recent report is for July to December 2013. By Facebook received about 12,600 requests from various American law enforcement agencies. This does not include national security requests. Those are cataloged in a separate section of the report.

The majority of these are search warrants, requests for information by law enforcement like police and district attorneys’ offices, followed by subpoenas, court orders for the information. Facebook received about 5,900 search warrants and approximately 5,400 subpoenas in the second half of 2013. In some cases, Facebook gets gag orders, court orders that stop Facebook from informing users that their information has been requested or write about it publicly for a period of time. Now it seems Facebook wants to tell its users more about these incidents.

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