Court Says Facebook User Privacy Takes a Backseat to Search Warrants for Fraud

A New York appeals court has ruled that Facebook must turn over user data to law enforcement authorities that have a search warrant to access a user’s information, rejecting Facebook’s challenge to 381 search warrants issued by Manhattan prosecutors for a Social Security fraud investigation.

The search warrants were issued in 2013 as part of an investigation into alleged Social Security fraud by former New York City firefighters and police officers. Approximately 100 police officers and firefighters were indicted in January 2014 on charges that they falsified information about their disabilities to obtain Social Security benefits. Prosecutors sought to use images the defendants posted on Facebook to prove their cases against the accused.

The search warrants demanded that Facebook turn over all data for each defendant’s account, including private messages, photos and other information, without informing users that their information was being used in a criminal investigation.

Facebook attempted to block prosecutor’s access to the user accounts based on the defendants’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, claiming that the warrants were unconstitutional.

Eventually, prosecutors only charged 62 of the 381 potential defendants with disability fraud but retained the personal information on all 381 individuals. During litigation, Facebook challenged the right of the government to retain information on individuals no longer under investigation since the search warrants did not specify for how long the information can be retained by law enforcement.

“We continue to believe that overly broad search warrants — granting the government the ability to keep hundreds of people’s account information indefinitely — are unconstitutional and raise important concerns about the privacy of people’s online information,” said Facebook spokesman Jay Nancarrow.

In 2014, a federal judge in New Jersey ruled that law enforcement officials could create fake social network profiles in order to search a suspect’s social network pages.

Facebook is considering an appeal of the recent New York ruling; other tech companies — including Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Yelp and Pinterest — had filed amicus briefs in support of Facebook. The New York Civil Liberties Union also supported Facebook in its suit.

The Cogdell Law Firm is a full service criminal litigation and appellate law firm. We provide client-focused representation at all stages of the process, whether our clients are seeking to avoid charges, have been charged, or are seeking reversal of a conviction on appeal. When results matter most, contact Dan Cogdell at (713) 426-2244 or