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This article was published on June 27, 2014

Facebook lifts the lid on its battle against New York court’s ‘unprecedented’ user data request

Facebook lifts the lid on its battle against New York court’s ‘unprecedented’ user data request

Facebook has been striving for transparency in its dealings with various law enforcement agencies around the world, particularly with its Government Requests report which was first released in August 2013, but it faces several challenges. To illustrate this (and reassure users of its transparent approach), the company has just revealed details of its fight against a set of sweeping search warrants issued by a court in New York last summer.

As reported by Bloomberg, the case concerned an investigation conducted by the Manhattan District Attorney to weed out people suspected of cheating to obtain disability benefits.

Facebook’s deputy general counsel, Chris Sonderby, revealed that the “unprecedented” request demanded for Facebook to submit almost all the data from the accounts of 381 people on Facebook, including photos, private messages and other information. Although Facebook argued that the order was unconstitutional, Sonderby said that the government instead obtained gag orders that banned Facebook from discussing the case and notifying affected people until now.

“We fought forcefully against these 381 requests and were told by a lower court that as an online service provider we didn’t even have the legal standing to contest the warrants. We complied only after the appeals court denied our application to stay this ruling, and after the prosecutor filed a motion to find us in criminal contempt,” Sonderby said.

In the end, of the 381 people whose accounts were subject to being searched, 62 were later charged for disability fraud. Facebook argues that government data requests should have a narrow range and come under “strict judicial oversight.”

“We believe search warrants for digital information should be specific and narrow in scope, just like warrants for physical evidence. These restrictions are critical to preventing overreaching legal requests and protecting people’s information,” Sonderby said.

Post-Snowden NSA revelations, Facebook has been more forthcoming about its struggles with alleged surveillance efforts by the US government — CEO Mark Zuckerberg even once called US President Barack Obama over the phone to express his frustration.

Headline image via Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images