Bulk Search Warrants Allow Access to Facebook Account Information

New York’s Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, recently affirmed that state law does not allow Facebook to appeal a judge’s refusal to quash search warrants that compel the company to provide account information and communications in connection with a criminal investigation.[1]

In July 2013, Facebook received 381 warrants issued under the federal Stored Communications Act.[2] The warrants sought subscriber information and content from user accounts including profile information, photos, financial account information, and both public and private messages. The warrants also instructed Facebook not to notify account holders. The New York County District Attorney’s Office sought the information as a part of a large-scale investigation into allegations of Social Security Disability fraud involving larceny and the filing of false instruments.[3]

Facebook moved to quash the warrants on the grounds they were overbroad and unconstitutional. The company also objected to the nondisclosure requirement. In denying the motion, the judge stated that Facebook lacked standing to assert constitutional challenges on behalf of individual users. The judge also noted that the warrants were supported by probable cause and that any notification to users would jeopardize the success of the criminal investigation.[4] After Facebook complied with the warrants, the information gathered from user accounts assisted the district attorney in obtaining indictments against more than 100 police officers and former public employees.[5]

As the case involves key privacy concerns, many technology companies, including Google, Microsoft, and Amazon, followed Facebook’s appeal and filed amicus briefs.[6] In the recent Court of Appeals decision, Judge Stein admits that “[t]his case undoubtedly implicates novel and important substantive issues regarding the constitutional rights of privacy and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure….”[7] Stein explained that while it may be tempting to address such concerns in the judicial forum, New York’s criminal procedure law does not allow for the appeal of orders relating to warrants in criminal proceedings; thus, it would be improper for the court to address the substantive issues of the case. Facebook has not yet decided whether it will pursue the issue further in federal court.[8]

While the Court of Appeals’ decision may seem like a loss for technology companies and social media users, some commentators remain hopeful that future decisions will protect users’ privacy rights. Donna Lieberman, executive director at the New York Civil Liberties Union, explained that “‘[t]his ruling does not reject our important claim that the state and federal Constitution do not permit district attorneys to rummage around in people’s Facebook accounts like they did here.’”[9] As the decision is based on procedural grounds, constitutional challenges to such actions may still be raised going forward.


[1] See In re 381 Search Warrants Directed to Facebook, Inc. & C., No. 02586 (N.Y.2017) (slip op.; 4-4-17); James C. McKinley Jr., Facebook Loses Appeal to Block Bulk Search Warrants, N.Y. Times, Apr. 4, 2017.

[2] In re 381 Search Warrants Directed to Facebook, Inc. & C., No. 02586 (slip op.); see also 18 U.S.C. §§2701-2712 (Stored Communications Act).

[3] In re 381 Search Warrants Directed to Facebook, Inc. & C., No. 02586 (slip op.).

[4] Id.

[5] See McKinley, Facebook Loses Appeal to Block Bulk Search Warrants.

[6] See id.

[7] In re 381 Search Warrants Directed to Facebook, Inc. & C., No. 02586 (slip op.).

[8] See McKinley, Facebook Loses Appeal to Block Bulk Search Warrants.

[9] Id.