Details have come to light this week of a US court order forcing Facebook to hand over the data of almost 400 people involved in a benefits fraud investigation. While the case dates back to last year, a judge only made the details public in the last few days.
Facebook initially appealed the decision, but ultimately had to provide the courts with photographs, private messages and other personal information from 381 accounts, as the courts had deemed that the content contained “evidence of criminality”. The case was investigating fraudulent benefit claims, with the courts arguing that the information from the Facebook accounts would prove that the claimants were in fact healthy.
However, Facebook’s major concerns related to not only the size number of accounts from which data had been demanded (the site said the request was “by far the largest” it had ever received from a government body), but also the apparent lack of a restrictions when it came to the US government retaining the data. Seemingly the data surrendered by Facebook can be held indefinitely by the US government, as there was no deletion date included in the warrant.
The number of people who “unnecessarily” had their privacy breached also cause Facebook much ire, with Chris Sonderby, a legal adviser to Facebook, saying:
“Of the 381 people whose accounts were the subject of these warrants, 62 were later charged in a disability fraud case. This means that no charges will be brought against more than 300 people whose data was sought by the government without prior notice to the people affected.”
Defending the actions of the courts, a spokesperson for the Manhattan District Attorney said:
“The defendants in this case repeatedly lied to the government about their mental, physical, and social capabilities. Their Facebook accounts told a different story.”
The judge who lifted the lid on the investigation, and the nature in which evidence was collected, wrote in their findings:
“Facebook could best be described as a digital landlord, a virtual custodian or storage facility for millions of tenant users and their information. Hence, the search warrants authorise the search and seizure of digital information contained within the Facebook server.”
The problem when you entrust all of your personal data to other services or networks is that they often have to think on the practical business implications of taking a moral stand when it comes to privacy. It’s easier for individuals to dig their heels in against the authorities than it is for a publicly listed company with shareholders and millions of users to hold it accountable for its actions.
What is your view on the situation? Was the US government justified in capturing so much data? Should Facebook have put up more of a fight? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.