Canadian Court Apparently Decides That Private Facebook Profiles Aren't Actually Private

from the privacy-settings-are-meaningless dept

The folks at Facebook are notoriously proud of the granular levels of privacy their system allows, such that you can pick and choose what you share with different people. Apparently, all of that is meaningless to a judge in Ontario, who has decided that if you use Facebook at all, your profile can be used against you in a civil court case, even if you set it to private. The judge's reasoning is quite troubling:
a court can infer from the social networking purpose of Facebook, and the applications it offers to users such as the posting of photographs, that users intend to take advantage of Facebook's applications to make personal information available to others. From the general evidence about Facebook filed on this motion it is clear that Facebook is not used as a means by which account holders carry on monologues with themselves; it is a device by which users share with others information about who they are, what they like, what they do, and where they go, in varying degrees of detail. Facebook profiles are not designed to function as diaries; they enable users to construct personal networks or communities of "friends" with whom they can share information about themselves, and on which "friends" can post information about the user.
That's sort of true. It is for sharing content with others... but the very point is that you get to choose who those others will be. So, even if it's not exactly like a diary, it could be considered a diary that is just shared with a select group of individuals. Just because I share something secret with one other person, does not mean I automatically have consented to have that information shared with everyone. I wonder if this means that all of the judge's correspondences with others should be opened to the public. After all, the judge is obviously not conducting a monologue with himself, but uses things like email or letters or phone calls to share information with others.


Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 7:55am

    I dunno Mike

    "personal information available to others" is the crux of this decision. This information does NOT have to be made available to the public, but the act of placing it on a "social network" is ample evidence that this person intended to share it with at least "others" and therefor the expectation of privacy is reasonable dimished. I dunno, it seems like a reasonable decision to me?

     

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  2.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 7:59am

    yet another reason to ditch social sites and pick up the phone!

     

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  3.  
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    Anshar, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 8:08am

    I have to agree with Anonymous Coward. This seems pretty reasonable. It's true that if you tell someone a secret that you're not necessarily consenting to everyone knowing that secret. It's also true that once you tell someone that secret, you've given up privacy in favour of trust - trust that the person you told won't spread the secret. Likewise, once you give someone permission to view your facebook info you've given up privacy in favour of trusting your 'friends' to not repost your info in a more public place. What you're suggesting in the article is akin to saying that a witness in court can't testify about something he/she was told in confidence by the accused without the accused giving permission.

     

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  4.  
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    Chronno S. Trigger, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 8:09am

    Re: I dunno Mike

    By the act of speaking, one intends to share information with at least "others" but douse not indicate that you want to share that information with everyone.

    As far as I can tell, an E-Mail is still considered privet even though one intends on sharing it with others. A conversation in your living room in privet.

    Just because it can be accessed by someone placing a camera or mic in your home or hacking into a server doesn't diminish the expectation of privacy.

     

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  5.  
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    Rebel Freek, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 8:12am

    I can see both sides to this...

    I do see the side of the court as you are putting the information online for others to read and therefore it should be open.

    Then on the other hand, people are expecting a certain level of privacy when they choose who they want see the information.

    I wonder how this case will turn out.

     

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  6.  
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    Debunked, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 8:13am

    Just throwing this out

    I do not know Facebook privacy settings so this is guesswork: (Please correct me as I am trying to learn here)

    1. If a person got sued and then changed their settings to private to hide the stuff that was previously open would that be fair in a civil suit?

    2. Obviously Facebook would not publish to the outside world dates or privacy changes from one privacy setting to another as that would be, I don't know, private.

     

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  7.  
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    Chronno S. Trigger, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 8:16am

    Re:

    This isn't like you telling me a personal secret and me testifying that information in court, that has never been a privacy issue. It's like me bugging your house and everything you say to anyone else (say your dog) can be published because you intended to share it with someone.

     

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  8.  
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    Rebel Freek, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 8:17am

    Re: Just throwing this out

    As far as I know

    1. Since that information was open to all to see at the time of opening the case, it would be fair use.

    2. True, but it is very easy to archive a website so show the changes.

     

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  9.  
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    Michael Kohne, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 8:27am

    Information not under your control

    If you put personal information on systems not under your control, you need to expect that it's going to come back at you later. There's just no physical way for you to retain control.

    Heck, Facebook could have a bug tomorrow that makes all data public for all users. Wouldn't be intentional on their part, but if it happened, everyone would see everyone about you.

     

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  10.  
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    BTR1701, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 8:31am

    Re: Re: I dunno Mike

    > As far as I can tell, an E-Mail is still
    > considered privet even though one intends
    > on sharing it with others.

    Yes, and e-mails are discoverable in a civil trial.

    I'm not sure why TechDirt is focusing on the private/not private aspect of this issue here. All sorts of truly private things about our lives are discoverable in both civil and criminal lawsuits. Unless it's covered by a privilege (attorney-client, doctor-patient, priest-penitent, etc.), it's discoverable. I see no reason why a Facebook profile should be any different no matter how "private" it may be in practice.

     

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    BTR1701, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 8:36am

    Disocovery

    > So, even if it's not exactly like a diary,
    > it could be considered a diary that is just
    > shared with a select group of individuals.

    Well, that's great and all, but the reality is that traditional written diaries-- which are undeniably private in nature-- are themselves discoverable in civil suits if they contain relevant information to the case.

    If lawyers for the other side can force you to turn over the little black diary book you've been writing in since you were a kid, why would you think information on a Facebook profile would be exempt from discovery, no matter how "private" the service allows you to make it?

    The only matters exempt from discovery are those covered by statutorily recognized privileges-- attorney-client, doctor-patient, etc.-- and as far as I know, there's no social network-customer privilege under the law.

     

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  12.  
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    David, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 8:41am

    So if someone takes a nude photo of themselves, by this judges reasoning, it would not be private. You know what you look like naked. Since you took a picture, you must be intending to share it with someone. And if you're going to share it with one person, even once, it's not private.

    Sorry ladies, but you heard the man. Start posting!

     

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  13.  
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    BTR1701, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 8:41am

    Discovery

    One more comment-- I hit the "submit" button too fast:

    > I wonder if this means that all of the judge's
    > correspondences with others should be opened
    > to the public.

    That's already the case. If the judge is sued by someone, then yes, his written correspondence (if deemed relevant by the court hearing the case) will be both discoverable and subject to being entered into evidence in open court and become part of the public record.

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 8:42am

    I know... Don't put photos of you doing a line of blow up as your profile pic...

     

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  15.  
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    Anshar, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 8:44am

    @Chronno S. Trigger

    I respectfully disagree. I don't think it's like someone bugging my house, it's more like someone getting a warrant to search my house and finding stuff I don't want them to find. Is it an invasion of my privacy? Yes. Do they have the right to invade my privacy in that way? With a warrant - yes. Who's to blame for what they find? I am to blame because I kept the stuff I didn't want found knowing that if the house was searched they'd find it.

     

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  16.  
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    LostSailor, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 8:48am

    Don't Let Facts or Law Get in the Way

    I wonder if this means that all of the judge's correspondences with others should be opened to the public.

    This has little to do with privacy, except to the extent that information was made available by this defendant publically, which would only reinforce the decision. It also really has nothing to do with the judge's understanding of the nature of Facebook (though the judge seems to have a very good understanding of Facebook).

    This has to do with discovery in a lawsuit. If they judge were being sued, then yes, his private correspondence with others...or even his personal diary shared with no one...could be the subject of a discovery order, as long as the documents are responsive to the discovery request.

    Mike might want to actually read the court's opinion (linked in the article Mike cite)...it is pretty short and would only take a couple of minutes...before making unwarranted assertions. A Facebook profile is hardly "private" if it's shared with hundreds of "friends" even though it might not be open to the general public.

     

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  17.  
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    Rebel Freek, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 8:50am

    Re: Disocovery

    "Well, that's great and all, but the reality is that traditional written diaries-- which are undeniably private in nature-- are themselves discoverable in civil suits if they contain relevant information to the case."

    They still need some type of probable cause to go look through that, they cant just go into it looking for something to use against you.

     

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  18.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 9:08am

    Re: I dunno Mike

    Using that logic all phone conversations would be public as well.

     

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  19.  
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    BTR1701, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 9:15am

    Re: Re: Discovery

    > They still need some type of probable cause
    > to go look through that, they cant just go
    > into it looking for something to use against you.

    "Probable cause" is a standard pertinent only to criminal prosecutions. It has nothing to do with a civil lawsuit, which is what we're talking about here.

    The only standard a party has to meet to discover evidence (including Facebook profiles) in a civil suit is relevancy. If the plaintiff can demonstrate to the judge's satisfaction that the information contained on a Facebook page (or a diary or a bank account or whatever) is relevant to the issues being decided in the lawsuit, then it's discoverable, no matter how private it may be.

     

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  20.  
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    The Truth Beacon, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 9:17am

    Re: Re: (Chrono's comment)

    This isn't like you telling me a personal secret and me testifying that information in court, that has never been a privacy issue. It's like me bugging your house and everything you say to anyone else (say your dog) can be published because you intended to share it with someone.

    Except that publishing your information on Facebook for others to see IS (with a private profile) like telling others a personal secret in public. If you posted this information in a hidden journal section that nobody else could see regardless of privacy settings, then yes I could see the point you made in the above text.

    One of the biggest points I think this is trying to make is that people tend to use social networking sites as a brag spot. If they do something stupid, they use the sites to brag about it to their friends and expect to hide behind privacy settings to prevent incrimination. They need to realize that secrets are only secrets if they aren't shared with anyone.

    PS: I hate to be a jerk (well, not really) but please learn to spell private (and as many other words as you can) correctly...

     

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  21.  
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    BTR1701, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 9:18am

    Re: Don't Let Facts or Law Get in the Way

    > A Facebook profile is hardly "private" if
    > it's shared with hundreds of "friends" even
    > though it might not be open to the general
    > public.

    Indeed, and whether it's private or not isn't even the issue, since lots of private things are subject to discovery in civil suits.

     

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  22.  
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    MikeR, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 9:18am

    Disagree with article

    That seems to me one of the best-argued points about social networking and civil law I've seen. You should be applauding the judge for actually understanding how a social network site works. Maybe read up on Canadian civil law before posting next time.

     

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  23.  
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    discovery request, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 9:46am

    isn't discovery the issue?

    Aren't there some sox requirements that corporations save all email? So any email between you and your lawyer, boss, customer, girlfriend, wife, boyfriend, etc. is discoverable, right? -- regardless of what the corporate email privacy settings and requirements/rules?

    That basically means a private email, SMS, hand written note, or phone conversation can all be used against you if a judge allows it as evidence, and can thus be part of public record, no? I'm including the "judge allows" clause, to include wire taps and warrants that might allow debate-able content into a trial.

    Facebook is only a tool for capturing or storing the content which is discoverable.

     

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  24.  
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    ehrichweiss, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 10:00am

    Re: Re: I dunno Mike

    Only if they were on a conference line where there is no real expectation of privacy, otherwise your analogy fails.

     

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  25.  
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    Some IT Guy, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 10:03am

    Yet another reason why Canada sux

    The US as of late isn't much better...

     

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  26.  
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    Stew, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 10:10am

    There is no Privacy on Facebook

    Calling facebook settings "levels of privacy" is really quite inaccurate and misleading. "Levels of access" would be a much more accurate description. In effect posting something to Facebook is publishing it. It might be equivalent to a subscription only newsletter, but it's still publishing. And publishing is the act of making something public.

     

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  27.  
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    Technage, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 10:34am

    I guess the point is if you tell your friend you murdered someone they can subpoena that friend and make him tell "the truth" so in a odd way it makes sense but at the same time if it was email we would all be freaking.

     

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  28.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 10:38am

    Re: Re: Re: I dunno Mike

    Isn't there a reasonable expectation of privacy when you say, "only these people on facebook can see this?"

    Why is there any difference when you share with one person as opposed to sharing it with 3 people?

     

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  29.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 10:39am

    People may wish to keep a few things in mind. First, the person being compelled to produce his facebook profile is the plantiff, and not the defendent. And this person is, according to the judge, asking for substantial monetary compensation due to loss of enjoyment of life.

    The plantiff is required to turn over anything that may be relevent to showing this loss, and that would include interactions with people on facebook. And the judge didn't appear to order the plantiff to turn over access to the profile, but rather was allowing the defendent's lawyer to question him about it, although not being a lawyer myself that may amount to the same thing.

     

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  30.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 10:40am

    Re: Information not under your control

    Your credit card information is on a system not under your control. Your entire "identity" is on a system not under your control. What is your point?

     

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  31.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 10:51am

    Re: Re: Re: Discovery

    Did you read the case? The plaintiff's attorneys says they don't have to prove the facebook page is irrelevant, the defense should have to prove its relevant before they turn it over. The defense wants to just look at it because they think it could be. That actually have no proof that it would be.

     

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  32.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 11:01am

    Re: Discovery

    However, this isn't the case here.

    This isn't about them turning over relevant documents that were private. Its about them forcing them to turn over private documents and just checked to see if its relevant. They've done nothing to prove its relevant other than, "well other facebook people put stuff like that in there." This ruling is saying that due to (the judge's understanding of) the nature of facebook, the privacy point is irrelevant and they're public documents. Therefore no need to prove relevancy is required.

    THAT is completely missed in all of your posts.

     

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  33.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 11:16am

    Government in bed with the service provier means...

    As long as you provide your info to a 3rd party, it could be considered public, regardless of use.

    Once again, the best thing to do is create your own site, on your own server, with your own interwebs access. This way you can control the info, and also sue for trespassing on your server if it gets hizacked or otherwise obtained by unsavory TOS means.

    Some enterprising company (Maybe Ning) could see this as an opportunity to sell a Social Network Appliance, based on OpenSocial, like what they've done over at the dd-wrt project.

     

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  34.  
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    Jesse, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 11:31am

    I agree. If you use e-mail, should that now be available? What about private letters? Presumably if you mail somebody, you are not having a monologue with yourself.

     

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  35.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 11:32am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: I dunno Mike

    "Why is there any difference when you share with one person as opposed to sharing it with 3 people?"

    Its really not, unless you meet very specific tests, your speech is not "private" in either case.

     

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  36.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 12:53pm

    "very point is that you get to choose who those others will be."

    The very point is that if you share a paper copy of ANYTHING with ANYONE except your attorney it is NO-LONGER private as the information has been shared with at least one person

     

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  37.  
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    BTR1701, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 1:16pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Discovery

    > The defense wants to just look at it because they think it
    > could be. That actually have no proof that it would be.

    That's pretty standard in all civil suits when there's a dispute as to relevancy. Both parties meet with the judge and the moving party makes their case for why it's relevant. The other party has a chance to respond/rebut and the judge decides one way or the other.

    Again, this happens with every other kind of document. I see no reason why a web site profile should be treated any different under law just because it's on the internet.

     

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  38.  
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    Johnny Canada, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 1:17pm

    WWW = WORLD WIDE WEB

    If you put any information on any website or social network regardless of 'Pivacy Settings' you have placed it on the WORLD WIDE WEB, you have given up your right to privacy.

    Now, what ever information you look up on the web is your own business not the governments (unless they have a proper warrant).

     

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  39.  
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    Chronno S. Trigger, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 1:25pm

    Re:

    But it is about that invasion without a warrant. The Judge is saying that since those documents are public than you don't need a warrant, probable cause, or even proof of relevancy. That's the point.

     

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  40.  
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    Johnny Canada, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 1:37pm

    Chrono S. Trigger

    let me try to make my point clear.

    What you READ on the web is your private business.

    What you POST is public.

    Or to put it this way.

    I read what you posted above that is my own business that I read it.

    What I right here is public.

     

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  41.  
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    Johnny Canada, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 1:38pm

    What I write here is public.

     

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  42.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 2:23pm

    Re: Chrono S. Trigger

    >> What you READ on the web is your private business.
    >> What you POST is public.

    Sure, but some news sites, magazine sites, or journal and professional sites require a membership, subscription or the like to access protected content. Accessing, reposting, re-transmitting, or other dissemination is usually grounds for membership revocation, if not also constituting hacking and possible downstream legal challenges.

    If information was obtained in a manner inconsistent with the terms of service, and privacy is violated, it's best that there is a warrant, or else expect evidence be challenged in court, and co-conspirators have their name maimed in public.

    At the core, it seems going on a fishing expedition thru someone's private facebook usually indicates a case based on flimsy evidence anyway.

     

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  43.  
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    shakir, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 3:10pm

    history

    a little history on the internet -- it's original form was created by defense department. please see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet#Creation

    now are you trying to tell me that the information from DARPA net or any other entity that uses the network as a storage or a communication/dissemination tool is actually making that information public? this definition of private/public could have terrible recourse for defense departments across the globe (if of course they follow suit otherwise just for Canada)

     

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  44.  
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    BTR1701, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 3:17pm

    Re: Re: Discovery

    > They've done nothing to prove its relevant other than, "well
    > other facebook people put stuff like that in there."

    That's what plaintiffs do in lawsuits all the time with bank accounts, e-mail, letters and diaries. They suspect there might be relevant evidence but they don't know till they can get a look at it, so they make a demand for discovery. If there's an objection from the defendant, the judge orders it produced in his chamber, he/she looks at it and makes a ruling as to relevancy. If it's relevant, it's turned over, if it's not, then the plaintiff gets to keep it secret.

    That's all that's happening here with this Facebook profile.

    > This ruling is saying that due to (the judge's understanding
    > of) the nature of facebook, the privacy point is irrelevant

    Of course it's irrelevant. Just like the privacy of your bank account is irrelevant when it comes to a civil suit. If the judge approves a discovery order for it, you have to turn it over.

    > Therefore no need to prove relevancy is required.

    Relevancy is always required for *all* evidence, whether it's public or not.

     

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  45.  
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    Privacy, Feb 27th, 2009 @ 4:44pm

    Re: Re: I dunno Mike

    Privacy really doesn't exist any more. Ask the traffic cops who use CCTV cameras to watch couples make love in the dark

     

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  46.  
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    Kelsie Flynn, Mar 13th, 2009 @ 3:08am

    Facebook Private Profiles

    Yea there definitely isn't and privacy on facebook because you can view and profile private or not with the Facebook Private Profile Viewer some people are just way to smart!

     

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  47.  
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    Michael Talpas (profile), Mar 16th, 2009 @ 2:46pm

    Re: I dunno Mike

    The expectation of privacy is pretty clear in this case. You set your facebook profile to private, adding that only certain people can access it. This would suggest that you want it kept private.

    If I stood on a soap box on the corner and shouted out my secrets for the world to hear, that would be one thing. But if I send a message to someone through a carrier (Whether it be facebook, email, or voice mail) there is an expectation that it will be kept private.

     

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  48.  
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    Michael Talpas (profile), Mar 16th, 2009 @ 2:50pm

    Re:

    I think you missed the point, Anshar. The court isn't saying that the people you invited to your facebook profile don't have the right to share what they have seen. The court is saying that the civil court has the right to demand 'from facebook' the information it wants.

    This is a lot like saying that the police have a right to listen to your phone calls, because you are calling someone. You are not talking to yourself, obviously. So therefor, your 'reasonable expectation of privacy' is taken away because you intend to talk to someone. I'm sorry, but I can't agree with that.

    Obviously, however, the other person you are talking to can parrot your statements to whomever they want. That is their right, because you shared the information with them. However, the carrier cannot do that. It invades privacy.

     

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  49.  
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    Michael Talpas (profile), Mar 16th, 2009 @ 2:56pm

    Re: Disocovery

    BTR1701: I did not know those laws, but if you are correct, that is fine. However, the court is not using 'discovery' as the reason why it is demanding that information. The fact that it is using this definition is disturbing and alarming. For instance: I tell my most intimate and darkest secrets to my psychiatrist. Now, my doctor/patient priviledge holds true here, but the court could claim that because I shared that information with the psychiatrist, I wanted it know by "others". That is very disturbing, I'm afraid.

    It isn't the information being shared that is the problem, it is the reasonable expectation of privacy, and the way in which the court decided to pursue this information. Because of that, I am worried.

     

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  50.  
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    Jackie Baker, Apr 3rd, 2009 @ 3:34pm

    Privacy

    You can view any private profile viewer

     

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  51.  
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    Facebook Profiles, Apr 21st, 2009 @ 8:00am

    How to view private facebook profiles

    You don't need a court to tell you that facebook isn't private. They have countless security holes. Read this article: How to view private facebook profiles The entire infrastructure of facebook is conductive of security breaches.

     

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  52.  
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    Andy, Apr 24th, 2009 @ 9:56pm

    Facebook Private?

    OK, I think that the Judge is totally correct here. If you place your info / photos / whatever on facebook, you are posting it for all to see. Social sites are just that, Social. You put it up, you meant for someone else to see it. The people who get confused with that idea are usually the same ones who are sitting at their computer, naked, with a drumbeat coming from the bottom of their computer desk while looking at friends/cousins/sheep of the opposite (or maybe similar) sex.

    Privacy Settings on a social site are hooey. You don't know the security on the server's end won't break down, and based on the money you pay them (Precisely $dick ) for the service, it would be hard to do anything to them in court if they broke something on the server.

    It would be like if a girl took her nude pictures to a party, and posted them on the door, hoping only the host would notice.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  53.  
    identicon
    yams, Jan 23rd, 2010 @ 9:37pm

    private profiles

    You can still view private facebook profiles try: View Private Facebook Profiles

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  54.  
    identicon
    how to hack a facebook account, Sep 26th, 2010 @ 2:51pm

    i agree

    OK, I think that the Judge is totally correct here. If you place your info / photos / whatever on facebook, you are posting it for all to see. Social sites are just that, Social. You put it up, you meant for someone else to see it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  55.  
    icon
    Angelina (profile), Dec 21st, 2010 @ 2:14pm

    How to view private facebook profiles

    AS all site facebook have security holes. Read this article:

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  56.  
    icon
    Angelina (profile), Dec 21st, 2010 @ 2:16pm

    Re: How to view private facebook profiles

    sorry the was :http://howtoviewprivatefacebookprofiles.net/

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  57.  
    icon
    Angelina (profile), Dec 21st, 2010 @ 2:19pm

    Re: private profiles

    as I see it's not working you can try read here: How to view private facebook profiles

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  58.  
    icon
    Darren (profile), Nov 5th, 2011 @ 4:24am

    The decision is right

    Facebook doesn't keep people's privacy very well.Actually, there are massive holes in their security system and people are able find out our private information,photo albums,complete profiles!Using some software that's called "Facebook Private Profile Viewer".

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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