Facebook's inability to protect its users' privacy from Manhattan's district attorney shows the government's strength
A dispute between Facebook and Manhattan's district attorney demonstrates the company's inability to protect its customers from government requests for outrageous amounts of data and the legal ramifications it would suffer if it were to reveal those requests to its customers.
The conflict is rooted in the district attorney's request for complete profile information, from Likes and messages to photos and videos, of more than 300 accounts. In a blog post, Facebook says this "unprecedented request is by far the largest we've ever received -- by a magnitude of more than ten -- and we have argued that it was unconstitutional from the start." The district attorney's office threatened to have company officials held in contempt of court if they didn't offer complete access to both the profiles and archived information of the indicated accounts.
Melissa Jackson, an acting Supreme Court justice, then argued that Facebook is nothing more than a "digital storage facility of its subscribers' digital information" and that it cannot fight the warrant on its users' behalf. She then told the company that it could not inform its users of the warrant because of the "fungible nature of digital information" and the possibility of some users attempting to delete their information before the district attorney's office could get it. (Never mind the difficulty of permanently deleting anything uploaded to Facebook's servers.)
Facebook continues to fight the district attorney's office on the breadth of its request, but the dispute has already shown how powerless the company is when compared to the government. And this is just a district attorney building a case against people suspected of disability fraud; is it any wonder that it's unable to discuss programs meant to root out suspected terrorists? If anything, this shows that we're lucky technology companies try to resist these requests at all.
It also makes the landmark Supreme Court ruling earlier this week, which bluntly told police officers that they need to get a warrant before searching through someone's phone, seem like an attempt to appease privacy advocates without actually accomplishing much. If the district attorney was able to secure access to more than 300 Facebook accounts so easily, why would it be even remotely difficult to receive permission to search through just one person's cell phone? The ruling is heartening in theory, but this case makes it seem like little more than pandering.
Here's a rule of thumb that ought to make it easier to avoid having your personal information compromised: assume that everything you do with anything reliant on some form of electricity can be monitored, analyzed, and used against you. Facebook can't stop that from happening. It also can't tell you that it's happening so you can fight the data collection yourself. Someone in the government might want to learn everything about you, and someone else is willing to give them permission to do just that. The idea that any activities are private is now laughable.