Massachusetts Court Says No Expectation Of Privacy In Social Media Posts Unwittingly Shared With An Undercover Cop
from the going-to-need-to-have-a-deeper-discussion-about-expectations dept
Can cops pretend to be real people on social media to catfish people into criminal charges? Social media services say no. Facebook in particular has stressed — on more than one occasion — that it’s “real name” policy applies just as much to cops as it does to regular people.
Law enforcement believes terms of service don’t apply to investigators and actively encourages officers to create fake accounts to go sniffing around for crime. That’s where the Fourth Amendment comes into play. It’s one thing to passively access public posts from public accounts. It’s quite another when investigators decide the only way to obtain evidence to support search or arrest warrants involves “friending” someone whose posts aren’t visible to the general public.
What’s public is public and the third party doctrine definitely applies: users are aware their public posts are visible to anyone using the service. But those who use some privacy settings are asking courts whether it’s ok for cops to engage in warrantless surveillance of their posts just because they made the mistake of allowing a fake account into their inner circle.
Accepting a friend request is an affirmative act. And that plays a big part in court decisions finding in favor of law enforcement agencies. Getting duped isn’t necessarily a constitutional violation. And it’s difficult to claim you’ve been unlawfully surveilled by fake accounts run by cops. You know, due diligence and all that. It apparently makes no difference to courts that cops violated platforms’ terms of service or engaged in subterfuge to engage in fishing expeditions for culpatory evidence.
Massachusetts’ top court has been asked to settle this. And the state justices seem somewhat skeptical that current law (including the state’s constitution) allows for extended surveillance via fake social media accounts. No decision has been reached yet, but lower courts in the state are adding to case law, providing additional precedent that may influence the final decision from the state’s Supreme Court.
This recent decision [PDF] by a Massachusetts Superior Court indicates the courts are willing to give cops leeway considering the ostensibly-public nature of social media use. But it doesn’t give the Commonwealth quite as much leeway as it would like.
Here’s how it started:
After accepting a “friend” request from the officer, the defendant published a video recording to his social media account that featured an individual seen from the chest down holding what appeared to be a firearm. The undercover officer made his own recording of the posting, which later was used in criminal proceedings against the defendant. A Superior Court judge denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the recording as the fruit of an unconstitutional search, and the defendant appealed. We transferred the matter to this court on our own motion.
Here’s how it’s going:
Among other arguments, the defendant suggests that because his account on this particular social media platform was designated as “private,” he had an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in its contents. The Commonwealth contends that the act of posting any content to a social media account de facto eliminates any reasonable expectation of privacy in that content.
The competing arguments about expectation are (from the defendant) “some” and (from the Commonwealth) “none.” It’s not that simple, says the court.
Given the rapidly evolving role of social media in society, and the relative novelty of the technology at issue, we decline both the defendant’s and the Commonwealth’s requests that we adopt their proffered brightline rules.
In this case, Boston police officer Joseph Connolly created a fake Snapchat account and sent a friend request to a private account run by “Frio Fresh.” Fresh accepted the friend request, allowing the officer access to all content posted. In May 2017, Officer Connolly saw a “story” posted by “Frio Fresh” that showed him carrying a silver revolver. Connolly recorded this and passed the information on to a BPD strike force after having observed (but not recorded) a second “story” showing “Frio Fresh” in a gym. The strike force began surveilling the gym and soon saw “Frio Fresh” wearing the same clothes observed in the first story (the one the officer was able to record with a second device). Strike force members pursued “Frio Fresh” and searched him, recovering the revolver seen in the Snapchat story.
The court recognizes the damage free-roaming surveillance of social media can do to constitutional rights, as well as people’s generally accepted right to converse freely among friends.
Government surveillance of social media, for instance, implicates conversational and associational privacy because of the increasingly important role that social media plays in human connection and interaction in the Commonwealth and around the world. For many, social media is an indispensable feature of social life through which they develop and nourish deeply personal and meaningful relationships. For better or worse, the momentous joys, profound sorrows, and minutiae of everyday life that previously would have been discussed with friends in the privacy of each others’ homes now generally are shared electronically using social media connections. Government surveillance of this activity therefore risks chilling the conversational and associational privacy rights that the Fourth Amendment and art. 14 seek to protect.
Despite this acknowledgment, the court rules against the defendant, in essence saying it was his own fault for not vetting his “friends” more thoroughly. The defendant seemed unclear as to Snapchat privacy settings and, in this case, willingly accepted a friend request from someone he didn’t know who used a Snapchat-supplied image in his profile. In essence, the court is saying either you care about your privacy or you don’t. And, in this case, the objective expectation of privacy is undercut by the subjective expectation of privacy this user created by being less than thorough in his vetting of friend requests.
Nonetheless, the defendant’s privacy interest in this case was substantially diminished because, despite his asserted policy of restricting such access, he did not adequately “control access” to his Snapchat account. Rather, he appears to have permitted unknown individuals to gain access to his content. See id. For instance, Connolly was granted access to the defendant’s content using a nondescript username that the defendant did not recognize and a default image that evidently was not Connolly’s photograph. By accepting Connolly’s friend request in those circumstances, the defendant demonstrated that he did not make “reasonable efforts to corroborate the claims of” those seeking access to his account.
Indeed, Connolly was able to view the defendant’s stories precisely because the defendant gave him the necessary permissions to do so. That the defendant not only did not exercise control to exclude a user whose name he did not recognize, but also affirmatively gave Connolly the required permissions to view posted content, weighs against a conclusion that the defendant retained a reasonable expectation of privacy in his Snapchat stories.
The final conclusion is that this form of surveillance — apparently without a warrant — is acceptable because the surveilled user didn’t take more steps to protect his posts from government surveillance. There’s no discussion about the “reasonableness” of officers creating fake accounts to gain access to private posts without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Instead, the court merely states that “undercover police work” is “legitimate,” and therefore not subjected to the same judicial rigor as the claims of someone who was duped into revealing the details of their life to an undercover cop.
The defendant may get another chance to appeal this decision if the state’s Supreme Court decides creating fake accounts to trawl for criminal activity falls outside the boundaries of the Constitution. Until then, the only bright line is don’t accept friend requests from people you don’t know. But that’s still problematic, considering there’s no corresponding restriction on government activities, which may lead to officers impersonating people from targets’ social circles to gain access to private posts. And when that happens, what recourse will defendants have? The court says it’s on defendants to protect their privacy no matter how many lies law enforcement officers tell. That shifts too much power to the government and places the evidentiary burden solely on people who expect their online conversations to be free of government surveillance.