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Facebook moves to recover user data seized by New York

Files an appeal for the return or destruction of the data and for a ruling on whether state violated privacy laws

By John Ribeiro
June 27, 2014 06:27 AM ET

IDG News Service - Facebook user data in bulk was sought last year by the New York County District Attorney's office and a court directed it to produce virtually all records and communications for 381 accounts, the company disclosed Thursday.

The social networking giant is now asking the court for the return or destruction of the data as well as a ruling on whether the bulk warrants violated the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and other laws. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures of property.

The company said that since last July it has been fighting a set of sweeping search warrants issued by the Supreme Court for New York County that demanded that it turn over to law enforcement nearly all data from the accounts of the 381 people, including photos, private messages and other information.

Facebook was also prohibited from informing the targeted persons, who included "high schoolers to grandparents, from all over New York and across the United States," and electricians, school teachers, and members of the country's armed services.

Of the 381 people whose accounts were covered under the warrants, 62 were later charged in a disability fraud case, Facebook's deputy general counsel Chris Sonderby wrote in a post on Thursday.

The request from New York is described by the company as the largest it has received, "by a magnitude of more than ten."

The government is said to have used photographs obtained from Facebook to help establish that some persons had allegedly claimed disability benefits fraudulently. The district attorney's office could not be immediately reached for comment. District attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., announced in January and again in February the indictment of a total of 134 persons on the charges.

The social networking company last Friday asked the appellate division of the New York State Supreme Court to force the government to return the data it has seized and retained.

The government's own investigation confirms "that most of the Facebook user data seized by the Government is irrelevant to the charges alleged, and the search warrants are overbroad and constitutionally defective," the company wrote in the court filing.

After Facebook filed the appeal, the government unsealed the warrants and all court filings, which has enabled Facebook to notify the people whose accounts were affected about the warrants and its ongoing legal efforts, Sonderby wrote.

Facebook's appeal focuses on whether it has the standing to challenge the warrants, whether the warrants, which authorized collection of large amounts of personal information and communications without an "apparent connection to the crimes under investigation, or procedures requiring the return of the seized information" are in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and whether the gag provisions of the warrants violate the Stored Communications Act and the First Amendment.

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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