Facebook’s four-year battle on behalf of its users, seeking to quash 381 warrants obtained by the New York County District Attorney’s Office, has come to a close. The decision of the New York Court of Appeals—which is New York’s highest court—leaves Facebook users exposed to wide-ranging and largely unchecked inquiries by New York criminal prosecutors into their Facebook accounts.
The story begins in July 2013, when the New York Supreme Court—which is the trial court in New York—issued 381 warrants arising out of the district attorney’s (DA) application for warrants under the Stored Communications Act (SCA). The DA was investigating an alleged Social Security Disability fraud scheme.
The DA’s request was extraordinarily broad. The warrants functionally amounted to a request for 381 users’ entire Facebook histories. The warrants compelled Facebook to produce not only any and all text, photos or videos a user had shared with his or her limited universe of friends, but also any private messages exchanged between the user and another individual (who could have been a spouse, doctor, religious figure or attorney) as well as information the user had chosen to no longer share with anyone, such as a previous email address, a deleted friend or a hidden post, and information the user had never intended to share with anyone, such as his or her searches and location.
The warrants also compelled Facebook to produce content shared by users who were not named in the 381 warrants, and may not even have known anyone named in the 381 warrants, but who had the misfortune of posting on the timelines of those users uploading photos of those users, or simply belonging to any one of the groups with which a named user was affiliated. At least several of the affected users were high school students who were highly unlikely to have been involved in a Social Security Disability fraud scheme. The issuing court also expressly prohibited Facebook from disclosing the existence or execution of the warrants.
While Facebook receives many such requests from law enforcement each year and often provides information in response, Facebook strongly objected to the wide-ranging requests in this case.
Facebook moved to quash the warrants on the ground that they were overly broad, but the New York Supreme Court denied the motion, finding that Facebook did not have standing to assert any privacy or Fourth Amendment rights on behalf of its users. Facebook also challenged the nondisclosure provisions of the warrants, but again the court sided with the DA, reasoning that disclosure of the warrants could jeopardize the DA’s ongoing investigation.
The intermediate appellate court dismissed Facebook’s appeal. The court explained that the orders from the lower court denying Facebook’s motion to quash were unappealable because, under New York law, there is no authority permitting review of interlocutory orders issued in criminal proceedings.
Facebook took the fight all the way to the New York Court of Appeals. Facebook argued that an order denying a motion to quash an SCA warrant should be treated like an appealable order denying a motion to quash a subpoena, rather than like an unappealable order denying a motion to quash a traditional warrant. While a traditional search warrant authorizes law enforcement officials to enter, search and seize property, an SCA warrant, like a subpoena, requires the target of the warrant to compile and turn over its own digital data.
On April 4, 2017, Facebook lost that fight when New York’s highest court ruled that it does not have authority to hear appeals from motions to quash search warrants issued under the SCA.
In a 5-1 decision, the Court of Appeals concluded that, despite the similarities between the manner of responding to SCA warrants and the manner of responding to subpoenas, an SCA warrant is a warrant, not a subpoena. As with traditional warrants, SCA warrants are only issued in criminal proceedings to a government entity that has supported its request for a warrant with probable cause. The court explained that the difference between execution of traditional warrants and SCA warrants is due to “the nature of the material sought”—it “ensures efficiency and minimizes intrusion” for a service provider to search and compile its own digital information rather than for law enforcement to conduct the search. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals found that the order denying Facebook’s motion to quash was not appealable.
Further, the Court of Appeals suggested that Facebook may not have had a right to bring a motion to quash in the first place. For purposes of this case, the Court of Appeals assumed, without deciding, that a motion to quash an SCA warrant was proper. However, the court noted that the SCA discusses warrants, subpoenas and court orders requiring disclosure of information separately, and only expressly provides for a motion to quash court orders.
The Court of Appeals did express some sympathy for Facebook’s concerns regarding the privacy of its users. At the outset, the court stated that “[t]his case undoubtedly implicates novel and important substantive issues regarding the constitutional rights of privacy and freedom from unreasonable search and seizures,” and that it was “tempting for the court to address those issues.” The court also noted that “Facebook’s concerns, as a third party, about overbroad SCA warrants may not be baseless.”
Notwithstanding its expressed concerns, and over a strenuous dissent from Judge Wilson, the New York Court of Appeals has provided criminal prosecutors wide-ranging investigative powers without providing Internet service providers an ability to obtain appellate review. With New York’s high court having spoken, the online industry’s focus is likely to shift toward a legislative fix that will promote users’ privacy interests and limit overreaching SCA warrants.