Reuters reports that U.S. law enforcement agencies are increasingly getting permission from the courts to search Facebook user profiles. Such searches have been conducted more than 20 times since 2008. Since the beginning of this year, courts have issued 11 search warrants, double the number from the same period last year.
Users are not always informed of searches. The court orders most often request that law enforcement be given access to “Neoprint” and “Photoprint” mechanisms, which are highly detailed sets of text and photographic data that are not even available to the users themselves. These terms even appear in law enforcement manuals instructing how to obtain information from Facebook.
Facebook itself has refused to confirm the existence of such mechanisms. In addition to the police, Facebook was searched by the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The spectrum of cases searched ranged from arson to rape to terrorism. Interestingly, none of the search warrants attempted to be overturned on Fourth Amendment grounds.
Experts say this may have been because the people whose profiles are being searched are not informed. However, the law does not require Facebook or authorities to inform suspects that their online profiles have been searched. They can find out about it at the time of indictment, as the prosecution is required to present evidence.
Twitter and many other social networks have been known to inform users on their own about searches of their profiles. What’s more, a few months ago Twitter successfully appealed a court ruling that barred it from informing suspects of searches.
It is not known whether Facebook informs users at all. What is known is that in several cases it has not done so. This was the case, for example, during the FBI investigation against four young Satanists who burned down a church or during the DEA investigation against a Hollywood psychiatrist who distributed psychotropic drugs to celebrities and whose profile was searched a week after his arrest.
Searches of social profiles raise an interesting legal issue that will have to be resolved sooner or later. The question is who owns the data stored on such sites. In 1976 in the case of United States v. Miller The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that a bank did not have to inform its customer that its bank account had been searched by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The court held that the defendant could not invoke the Fourth Amendment and claim that the search was illegal because the data was the bank’s property.
The issue of social media data is similar, but not identical. This is because different information is stored there and there is much more of it. The judges themselves are divided on this issue. Therefore, experts believe that sooner or later the Supreme Court will have to clarify it. For now, the Court has avoided clearly taking sides. During the recent case of Ontario v. Quon, in which a police officer accused his employer of violating the Fourth Amendment because the employer searched his work pager, from which the officer sent erotic messages, The court found that the search was not illegal, but did not specify how much privacy can be expected when our electronic data is stored by third parties.