The Trump Administration has sought warrants for the account information of three Facebook users allegedly involved in the planning of protests on Inauguration Day in Washington DC, including “a complete record of anything the three users communicated or received from a third party via Facebook, everyone with whom the users associated via Facebook, and everything the users searched for on Facebook,” for up to a 90-day time period around that time.
The warrants threaten to chill the use of social media for political activism and other causes. However, the scope of the data production the federal government seeks or could receive could lead to disclosure of personal communications only tangentially involved with the targeted accounts. The result could be that any social media users, no matter how innocent, could get their own data caught up in spider webs created by law enforcement inquiries.
Background: What The Government Seeks
The accounts include one titled “disruptj20,” and two others allegedly involved in the demonstrations. The warrants, originally requested in February 2017, seek to force Facebook to reveal virtually all information it has on the specified accounts. However, compliance with the warrants potentially could result in the government getting access to “personally identifying information” on thousands of other users who “liked” certain anti-Trump webpages on the site, or who merely corresponded with any of the targeted accountholders.
The Legal Concerns
The constitutional rights issues to average citizens are staggering.
The American Civil Liberties Union is fighting to quash the warrants on both First Amendment and Fourth Amendment grounds. Here is a link to the full ACLU brief challenging the government’s action.
The ACLU argues that the government’s action is little more than snooping into private, personal information, characterizing it as prohibited “exploratory rummaging.”
From the brief:
Permitting government officials to comb through 90 days’ worth of personal messages concerning political activity and associations — some of which are aimed at protesting the policies of the very administration on whose behalf the government officials would be acting in searching Intervenors’ records — is an unjustified invasion of privacy hearkening back to the “general warrants” that the Fourth Amendment was enacted specifically to prohibit.
The implications to privacy expectations of regular social media users are huge:
[E]nforcement of the warrants would chill future online communications of political activists and anyone who communicates with them, as they will learn from these searches that no Facebook privacy setting can protect them from government snooping on political and personal materials far removed from any proper law enforcement interest.
The Trump administration has reportedly obtained search warrants that would allow them access the Facebook pages of thousands of anti-Trump protesters. The requested data — which targets all the information in three accounts — would include information on about 6,000 individuals who “liked” an anti-Donald Trump Facebook page, according to CNN. The ACLU is fighting the warrant, claiming it seeks information that is not relevant to the federal probe.
Can social media now become a gateway for the government — today the Trump Administration, tomorrow, who knows? — to intimidate political opponents or merely anyone against whom some powerful government decisionmaker has a grudge?
The warrants should prompt social media users to reevaluate their use of the Internet and, indeed, their trust in the institutions which collect their information.
Sadly, the security and privacy of your personal data depends not on the law, but on the whims and character of anyone in front of a keyboard who’s able to pull up your file.