DOJ's Facebook Warrants Target Thousands Of Users For Protesting Inauguration

from the round-up-the-usual-social-media-accounts dept

The ACLU is going to court to fight government warrants seeking info on thousands of Facebook users who interacted with a Facebook page related to Inauguration Day protests. The resulting arrests have generated several extremely broad search warrants seeking communications and other personal information from Facebook and the protest site's hosting provider.

For awhile, the targets of these warrants could only be guessed at, thanks to the gag order attached to the Facebook warrants. The gag order was finally lifted by the DOJ less than a day before it was due in court for oral arguments. It wasn't Facebook securing a win so much as it was the government avoiding a loss -- a possibly-precedential ruling on gag orders in Washington, DC courts.

The fight goes on, with the charged protesters -- and Facebook itself -- fighting the overbroad warrants.Thanks to the last-minute lifting of the gag order, the targeted protesters are fully aware of the government's efforts. More importantly, they're able to participate in challenging the warrants before the government takes possession of their personal data.

Paul Levy of Public Citizen points to the latest filing by the ACLU, and makes it clear there's a lot of personal info at stake.

Lacy MacAuley and Legba Carrefour… were identified on the web site as media contacts for that web site. The demand for a search of the DisruptJ20 Facebook page is troublesome for the same reason that the demand for the search of the web site threatens First Amendment values — even if we assume that some member of the grouping that called itself DisruptJ20 organizers was at the same time secretly plotting a riot, that not should be a basis for subjecting everybody who was in touch with the DisruptJ20 Facebook page to investigation by Trump Administration prosecutors.

The demand to search the Facebook accounts of MacAuley and Carrefour is even more troubling. Individual Facebook accounts often contain highly personal matters, and if political opponents of the Trump Administration know that they can too easily have their entire Facebook accounts searched just because it turns out that some coalition of which they were a part included somebody who was secretly planning a riot, the chilling effect on future participation in anti-Trump political activity could be substantial.

The chilling effect -- and the demands for data -- go much further than these two individuals. A third warrant seeks access to info on the DisruptJ20 Facebook page. With this warrant, the government can obtain data on thousands of Facebook users.

Although the page is public, the warrant would require the disclosure of non-public lists of people who planned to attend political organizing events and even the names of people who simply liked, followed, reacted to, commented on, or otherwise engaged with the content on the Facebook page. During the three-month span the search warrant covers, approximately 6,000 Facebook users liked the page.

This echoes the tactics used by the DOJ against Dreamhost. The warrant served to the service provider originally asked for info on all visitors to the DisruptJ20 site -- 1.3 million users in total. These expansive demands create a massive chilling effect. Any activists and event organizers could easily have their digital lives turned upside down simply by visiting pages and websites the government chooses to target post-demonstration. The warrant for visitors to the Facebook page may only seek a list of visitors, but it's likely the first step in seeking additional warrants to gather a wealth of personal info on people who did nothing more than "like" a Facebook page.

What the government wants on the two charged demonstrators is... everything. The warrants [PDF] not only ask for everything they've posted to Facebook, but the contents of private messages, any Facebook searches they've performed, deleted posts/comments, and any pending or rejected Friend requests.

The ACLU is trying to quash these warrants on behalf of the targets, but it first has to get the DC criminal court's official invitation. Its motion to quash/intervene [PDF] is currently awaiting the court's examination.

It's unusual basic rioting charges have resulted in a Fourth Amendment battle, but that's how much social media has shifted the way we communicate. As we spend more and more time online, the government is going to be showing less and less interest in our physical houses and papers. And even as the government avails itself of vastly-increased amounts of personal information, it's keeping its own houses/file cabinets locked up tight: Post-demonstration rioting charges are standard operating procedure for law enforcement agencies, which makes you wonder what they're trying to hide behind gag orders and sealed dockets.

Filed Under: doj, free speech, gag order, inauguration, protests, warrants
Companies: facebook

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Oct 2017 @ 9:33am

    Re: Violence as "free speech".

    Problem is .. many times the cops start the violence, so yes there is a chilling effect upon your right to free speech because you know ahead of time that just participating, being in the crowd, makes you a target.

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