New York Court Says Facebook Can’t Object to Search Warrants

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Facebook Inc. lost a bid to block the biggest set of search warrants the company said it ever received, in a court ruling that might affect the amount of information social-media sites turn over to law enforcement.

The trove of digital information held by social-media companies has sparked privacy concerns across the U.S., especially as law enforcement officials increasingly use it to seek evidence of wrongdoing.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. obtained 381 warrants in 2013 as part of a Social Security fraud investigation. Facebook postings and other content -- such as photos of people riding jet skis and performing mixed martial arts -- provided Vance with evidence that helped bring charges last year against 134 people accused of cheating the government by lying about their disabilities.

Even though Facebook had already complied with the search warrants, its appeal was allowed to continue in a case that has drawn the attention of Google Inc. and Twitter Inc., as well as the American Civil Liberties Union.

A New York state appeals court in Manhattan unanimously ruled on Tuesday that Facebook had no right to challenge Vance’s search warrants before they were executed.

Constitutional Gatekeeper

Other protections against unreasonable searches already exist, according to the ruling, such as the requirement that a judge determine whether a warrant is valid before it’s issued. The judge serves as a “constitutional gatekeeper” who “protects citizens from the actions of an overzealous government,” the court said.

Individuals can also seek to suppress evidence that they believe to have been seized unconstitutionally, before the start of a trial, according to the court.

Facebook is considering its options to keep fighting on behalf of its users, company spokesman Jay Nancarrow said in an e-mail.

“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,” Nancarrow said.

The appeals court is the third to block Facebook’s efforts to prevent “lawful evidence gathering,” Joan Vollero, a spokeswoman for Vance, said in an e-mail.

Guilty Pleas

So far, 108 people have pleaded guilty to felony charges for taking part in the fraud, and they must pay back more than $24.7 million, Vollero said.

“Our holding today does not mean that we do not appreciate Facebook’s concerns about the scope of the bulk warrants issued here,” the court said. “Facebook users share more intimate personal information through their Facebook accounts than may be revealed through rummaging about one’s home.”

The case is In re 381 Search Warrants Directed to Facebook Inc., 30207-13, New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department.