Microsoft, Google, others back Facebook in New York privacy dispute

Facebook is seeking important rulings on the collection of bulk user data under gag orders

Key technology companies including Google, Microsoft and Twitter on Friday filed in support of Facebook's dispute with the New York County District Attorney's office over the collection of user data in bulk under a gag order for a fraud investigation.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union also filed an amicus curiae brief Friday in support of the Facebook plea.

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Facebook said in June that a court in New York directed it to turn over to law enforcement virtually all records and communications for 381 accounts, including photos, private messages and other information. The social networking company was also prohibited from informing the targeted persons who included "high schoolers to grandparents, from all over New York and across the United States."

Of the 381 people whose accounts were covered under the warrants, 62 were later charged in a disability fraud case, Facebook said. The NYCLU in a statement Friday objected to "broad fishing expeditions" by government into personal and social conversations with family and friends with no regard to user privacy.

In its appeal in the appellate division of the New York State Supreme Court, Facebook is asking the court for the return or destruction of the data. It has also asked for a ruling on 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 to the U.S. Constitution that prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures of property.

The company is also asking for a ruling on whether the gag provisions of the warrants violated the Stored Communications Act and the First Amendment, and as importantly whether it has standing to challenge the warrants on behalf of its users.

The trial court had ruled in the negative in September on these issues, according to a Facebook filing. The court documents and warrants were unsealed after Facebook's appeal.

Dropbox, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yelp in their motion for leave to file an amicus curiae brief argue that the service provider has third-party standing to raise the constitutional rights of its subscribers, particularly as the provider is subject to a gag order.

"Unless Facebook is able to assert its subscribers' constitutional rights -- and any of its own rights -- the legality of the government's actions with respect to those subscribers will escape review altogether. And had the government chosen to indict no one, no one would have been the wiser," according to the filing.

Foursquare Labs, Kickstarter, Meetup and Tumblr separately filed a brief asking that the trial court's order should be reversed and the bulk warrants quashed. To act as custodians of their users' private information, Internet companies must have the choice to either object to unlawful government intrusions or notify users of such intrusions, according to the filing. "The Trial Court's order denying both options must be reversed," the companies said in an amicus curiae brief.

Describing themselves as the "New York Amici," the small and medium-size platforms said smaller companies may not have the resources to litigate each search warrant or court order, which makes it important to provide users with notice and an independent opportunity to object.

The New York County District Attorney's office could not be immediately reached for comment. Facebook said it did not have a comment beyond its remarks in June.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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