Facebook Battles New York District Attorney Over Access to User Profile Data

online_privacy_redbutton1Last year, the New York district attorney’s office demanded the complete content and data from 381 Facebook user profiles, including private messages and even posts they had liked. (Prosecutors were looking for evidence that fire fighters, police officers and other civil servants were filing fake disability claims and defrauding Social Security.)

Facebook fought the prosecutors’ demands at the time, claiming that it was an overreach for them to demand so much data. However, a New York Supreme Court justice took the side of the district attorney and ruled that, since Facebook was itself not the subject of the investigation, they couldn’t contest the search warrants. The judge also ruled that Facebook could not inform users that were being investigated, which meant the users themselves didn’t have the knowledge necessary to protest the searches.

However, Facebook has vowed to continue fighting the case, and this week, after filing an appeal, the court unsealed the case and allowed Facebook to inform the affected users.

“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 a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office. “The defendants in this case repeatedly lied to the government about their mental, physical, and social capabilities. Their Facebook accounts told a different story… and two courts have already found Facebook’s claims without merit.”

The case presents an interesting conundrum for legal experts. Should the legal right of citizens not to be unlawfully searched by the government supersede the need of law enforcement to gather evidence online?