Facebook’s Fight Over Bulk Data Grab Reflects Tech Industry’s Concerns

Source: Thinkstock

Ever since the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection program was exposed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden last year, there has been increasing public concern about the privacy of online data, as well as questions about the role tech companies played in enabling the government to obtain it. As a result of this public pressure, many tech firms have implemented changes in their privacy policies and stepped up their efforts to resist government requests for their customers’ data.

Not surprisingly, some of these moves have resulted in legal battles between a number of tech companies and the government. Facebook said that last year, the company was ordered by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office to turn over account data on 381 users who prosecutors suspected were involved in a disability fraud scheme.

While the government was able to obtain the information from those accounts over Facebook’s objections, the company has since been engaged in a fight to get what it calls the government’s “overly broad warrants” invalidated on the basis that those requests violate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. According to Facebook, prosecutors ended up charging only 62 of the individuals whose account data was seized. This means that more than 300 users had their privacy violated due to the government’s overreach.

Although Facebook lost the battle to keep its users’ data out of the government’s hands, it may still win the overall war against what it believes are the government’s unconstitutional actions. On September 25, a New York court granted Facebook permission to appeal the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office’s sweeping search warrants. According to court documents, oral arguments for the appeal are scheduled to be heard in December. While the legal fight is being led by Facebook, multiple tech companies and civil liberties groups have filed amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs in support of the social media company’s appeal, including Dropbox, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, Yelp, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Beto Barata/AFP/Getty Images

Besides questioning the constitutionality of the government’s bulk data requests, Facebook is also fighting for the right to inform its users when they are targeted for a search. Facebook said it was only able to inform its affected users in the disability fraud case about a year after the original request was issued due to a gag order.

Facebook’s appeal is just one part of a broader effort that tech companies have been making to boost privacy protections for their customers. Earlier this year Apple strengthened its legal process guidelines to include a pledge to “notify its customers when their personal information is being sought in response to legal process except where providing notice is prohibited by the legal process itself, by a court order Apple receives.” Apple and Google also recently announced that the latest iterations of their respective mobile operating systems will include a default encryption feature that will make it impossible for the companies to unlock devices at the government’s request.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is currently engaged in an ongoing court battle over the U.S. government’s request for customers’ email data that is stored on servers located in Ireland. The Wall Street Journal reports that while a federal judge ordered Microsoft to comply with the government’s request in July, the company is currently in the process of appealing that decision. Similar to Facebook’s appeal, Microsoft’s case also includes multiple amicus curiae briefs from other tech companies that have a similar interest in the overall battle for customers’ online privacy protections. After all, for the tech companies, there are more than just civil liberties at stake.

As noted in an open letter published by the Reform Government Surveillance coalition — which includes tech companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, and others — “Confidence in the Internet, both in the U.S. and internationally, has been badly damaged over the last year.” In other words, not only are people’s freedoms being affected, but companies’ profits, as well.

Follow Nathanael on Twitter @ArnoldEtan_WSCS

More from Tech Cheat Sheet: