Judge limits search of Facebook accounts connected to Inauguration Day protests

Rodiano Bonacci
Novembre 14, 2017

As a result of the order, the Department of Justice (DOJ) will be blocked from viewing identifying information on innocent third-party Facebook users who interacted with a page used to organize protests against President Trump on January 20.

The government must then explain how the materials are relevant to the investigation before the data can be un-redacted. The warrant's scope was deeply troubling - an overt attempt by the USA government to gather information on Americans whose only crime is apparently not liking President Trump.

A court in Washington, D.C., has moved to limit the scope of search warrants obtained by federal investigators for Facebook data in connection with an ongoing investigation into criminal rioting on Inauguration Day.

As a result of the court order Monday, Facebook will be required to edit out all third-party information that may identify a user, including the names and photos of approximately 6,000 people who liked or followed the DisruptJ20 Facebook page but were not believed to be a part of the Department of Justice's investigation into alleged riots.

In an order dated November 9 but released on Monday, DC Superior Court Chief Judge Robert Morin ruled that the government could conduct the searches, but with limits on the information they could get from Facebook and how they could handle that data.

The Trump administration requested Facebook to provide federal prosecutors with extensive personal information on the users, including their names, birthdates, telephone numbers, email addresses, passwords and security questions, physical addresses, IP addresses, credit card numbers, and "all known identifiers for the device (s) used to register or access the Account".

The Justice Department also sought the user's friends list, photos, videos, searches, as well as any data they had ever deleted. For the Disrupt J20 page, the government will have to tell the judge how it plans to search the data, and can't do any searches without the judge's approval.

He added that the searches would lead to the government "over-seizing" unrelated data "that it has no probable cause to collect".

Morin wrote that the government established probable cause to access information about the two individual accountholders - Legba Carrefour and Lacy MacAuley - and if any personal information was "intermingled" with potential evidence, that was the outcome of their decision to store data with Facebook, a third-party company. The Facebook page for the group has since rebranded to "Resist This".

“The court agreed to impose safeguards to protect political activity and third-party communications from government snooping, but was not equally careful to protect our clients private and personal communications, ” Scott Michelman, an attorney with the ACLU of the District of Columbia, said in a statement.

"Our clients, who have not been charged with any crime, expect that when they send private Facebook messages about, for instance, their medical history or traumatic events in their lives, those messages will remain private unless the government shows probable cause to search those particular messages, which it has not done". (The DOJ had sought access to photos dating as far back as 1 November 2016.) Moreover, the U.S. government has been ordered to seek the court's permission before requesting access to any additional third-party information.

“While the government has the right to execute its warrants, it does not have the right to rummage through the information contained on the Facebook accounts and discover the identity of, or access communications by, individuals not participating in alleged criminal activity, particularly those persons who were engage in protected First Amendment activities, ” Morin wrote.

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