The United States government wants access to information contained within the Facebook accounts of “potentially thousands of Facebook users” that are associated with individuals who are not supporters of the Trump administration. They have requested warrants to search three Facebook accounts. The warrants arise out of arrests of individuals that took place during the inauguration ceremonies for President Donald Trump this past January.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is doing their part to protect the Facebook users by representing them in an action to halt the warrants from being approved. They are concerned with how overly broad the claims are in the warrant. Citing Fourth Amendment concerns, the ACLU states that the warrants “ask for too much information not directly relevant to the federal probe.”
The warrants request information that the ACLU says constitutes “exploratory rummaging.” This is because the warrants are requesting information on these users ranging from their friends list to their personal message history. Additionally, the ACLU argues that in the alternative the court should at least put limits on the warrant in order to better protect the Facebook account holders information. The ACLU is concerned with the “chilling effect” that a search like this may have. Citing other First Amendment concerns, they argue how this concept of exploratory rummaging is a concern for the courts and is intensified whenever it involves political ideologies of citizens.
Another particularly alarming aspect of this issue is that the government wanted this to be a secret collection. However, Facebook fought for privacy concerns and eventually got permission to inform the users of the government’s attempt to get their information.
Of course, it must be emphasized that these are not just random Facebook accounts. They are accounts that are associated with individuals that allegedly are responsible for violent acts that took place because of the inauguration of President Trump. Regardless, they still raise valid privacy concerns over how far the government is allowed to go in collecting private information from online activity.
Facebook users should be free to “like” things as they wish, and communicate with others who agree with their political beliefs without having to worry about possible retaliation from the federal government’s lawyers.
Of course, the federal government is likely trying to make their federal case against these individuals. They likely see the information as potentially incriminating against the individuals they are investigating as it could link them to the actions that took place in January.
However, the issue is with how far this can extend. A warrant of this magnitude gives the government access not just to the user’s information, but also shows all of their “friends” and reveals private messages that occurred with other Facebook users that might not be the subject of this investigation. It infringes on the privacy of unsuspecting citizens – a concern the courts should not take lightly.
The judiciary has been struggling to keep up with the technological advances over the years. The struggle has been noticeable especially in its attempt to apply the Fourth Amendment to the new technologies. This has been evident in a recent court case that the Supreme Court is taking up like U.S. v. Carpenter regarding cell phone tracking information.
In the end, the courts need to fashion rules that are better suited for the current digital age. These rules need to balance the privacy concerns of individuals with the prosecution efforts of criminals by the government. It will be interesting to see how the court comes out on this specific issue, but also how courts in general view warrants in similar situations.