Facebook Search Warrants on the Rise

Facebook Search Warrants on the Rise

U.S. law enforcement can obtain warrants to search Facebook for detailed access to account information without users’ knowledge, another example of the social network’s increasing role in the legal world.

A Reuters review of the Westlaw legal database reveals that federal judges authorized at least two dozen warrants to search Facebook accounts, including messages, status updates, links to videos and photographs, calendars of events, wall postings and friend requests. And, in the first half of 2011, they issued almost twice as many as they did in all of 2010.

Federal agencies like the FBI, DEA and ICE seek warrants, which typically demand a Facebook user’s “Neoprint” and “Photoprint.” These are terms Facebook uses to refer to profile and picture packages that contain information not even available to users themselves.

To complete the search warrants, law enforcement follows guidelines outlined in manuals reportedly put together by Facebook, though the social network officials won’t confirm their authenticity.

Facebook’s chief security officer Joe Sullivan declined to comment in a telephone interview on how many warrants had been served on the company, but stressed Facebook is sensitive to user privacy and regularly pushes back against law-enforcement “fishing expeditions.”

The news comes amidst growing awareness that all sorts of business, commercial and legal interests leverage social media to gain information about their users. For example, alleged gunman Jared Loughner posted on MySpace hours before he embarked on the shooting rampage that seriously wounded Arizona’s Representative Gabrielle Giffords; his posts may be used as evidence against him in the pending case.

In addition to helping build criminal cases, debt collectors, divorce attorneys, and even fraud investigators are combing through Facebook and gathering information to pursue their cases.

So far, no court has challenged the Facebook warrants nor said they violate Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure.

That may be because, by law, neither Facebook nor the government has an obligation to inform users when their accounts are subject to search, or to notify users’ “friends” whose posts and pictures may have been searched as well.

But if a case is filed against a user, prosecutors must disclose material evidence to a defendant, including any information gleaned on the social networking site. This is similar to current laws governing banks and other institutions.

Twitter, while subject to the same laws, has adopted a policy to notify users when law enforcement asks to search their profiles. This past January, the social media service challenged a gag order and won.

The Facebook spokesman didn’t say whether the company had a similar policy for notifying users, or if it was considering one.

The federal courts have skirted debates on privacy protections of late. The Supreme Court demurred from addressing the privacy expectations of digital data head-on when it ruled in a recent case.

Explaining the court’s caution and hinting it may tackle the topic another day, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “The judiciary risks error by elaborating too fully on the Fourth Amendment implications of emerging technology before its role in society has become clear.”

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