Facebook Search Warrant Appeal Thrown Out By US Court

Facebook challenge to bulk search warrants for customer accounts dismissed by New York court

Facebook’s legal challenge against bulk search warrants from the Manhattan District Attorney has been rejected by New York state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.

Back in 2013, the office of District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr had issued the social networking giant with 381 search warrants to uncover Social Security disability fraud.

Facebook had reluctantly compiled with the request after it was threatened with criminal contempt and handed over the data, but it continued to appeal the matter, which had now been rejected.

facebook, mark zuckerberg
CEO Zuckerberg


Overly Broad

Facebook’s appeal had the support from rival tech giants including Microsoft, Google, Apple and Twitter, as well as privacy campaigners such as the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The appeal argued that the bulk search warrants from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr were overbroad, and that Vance went too far by prohibiting Facebook from telling users that the warrants existed.

It is worth noting that this is not the first time that District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr has clashed with tech firms. In late 2015 for example he called for weaker encryption levels on smartphones in order for law enforcement to be able to easily access the data stored on the devices.

But this week the Court of Appeals rejected Facebook’s appeal by a 5-1 vote, according to Reuters.

The court reportedly said it lacked jurisdiction to hear Facebook’s appeal over warrants. Judge Leslie Stein said it was up to targets of the warrants, not third parties such as Facebook, to challenge the warrants’ validity.

DA Vance had sought the account information belonging to people suspected of criminal fraud. Sixty-two of the Facebook users were later indicted.

People included in the search warrants were retired police officers and firefighters suspected of feigning illness after the 11 September 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre.

Facebook was reported as saying that it was disappointed by the decision and was evaluating its legal options.

Privacy Champion Microsoft

The tech industry’s concern with search warrants being issued for user data is nothing new. In 2014 for example Google was hit with search warrants to allow US prosecutors access to the Gmail emails of an unnamed user, who was part of a criminal investigation into money laundering.

But actually one of the foremost customer privacy campaigners in recent years has been Microsoft.

Last year it famously won a landmark case that it had been contesting vigorously for years. The situation was sparked when the US government had tried to force Microsoft to hand over emails that were stored on its servers located in Ireland.

At the time, Microsoft’s battle gained widespread support from both media organisations such as Fox News, The Guardian, Forbes, CNN, and the Washington Post, as well as its fellow tech rivals such as Apple, Amazon, Salesforce and eBay.

Microsoft also launched a transparency website in 2015 called the Microsoft Transparency Hub to detail government data requests, which added to the strain in Redmond’s relationship with the US federal government.

Microsoft has also previously refused to hand over customer data concerning a Skype user to a court in Belgium.

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