In the largest data retrieval of its kind in the US, social media giant Facebook was ordered to turn over access to nearly four hundred of its users’ accounts to government investigators. While Facebook fought the warrant at first, it lost the appeal on the court’s ruling that Facebook was the equivalent of a “digital landlord.”
In this particular case, nearly four hundred people were part of an investigation into disability fraud. Essentially, these 381 individuals were receiving disability benefits—which are determined based on both financial need and severity of long-term injuries—but their social media activity told a different story. Images of individuals who were water skiing, taking expensive vacations, and even talking about their jobs can indicate to officials that the claims were fraudulent.
Facebook fought the court’s request at first on the grounds that it violated the Fourth Amendment protection against illegal search and seizure. While Facebook was actually concerned about being ordered to turn over information on users’ accounts, it also took issue with what it felt were ambiguous terms in the warrant, such as the lack of an expiration date on when the government could use the information it was given. To date, only 62 of the 381 people have been charged with disability fraud or related charges, so the social media company rightfully wonders what the government is doing with the information now. Are they sitting on it and waiting for these individuals to post more incriminating evidence, unaware that investigators are watching? Facebook feels that would be equivalent to setting these people up to be arrested in the future.
The more interesting take away from this case, though, is the term “digital landlord.” By now, most internet users should be aware of the old statement that “nothing is ever gone from the internet,” referring to the ability of people with the right know-how to dig through your past, even if you thought you deleted it. But what more people seem to not understand is the rights you do and do not have online.
Those terms of service that people so blindly agree to by checking a little box often strip away the individual user’s rights to privacy and protection. When you sign up for an account with a website, you’re entering into a complicated agreement. Your rights to privacy and protection are not exactly the same as they are for your home and physical property, but too many online users don’t understand that.
By serving as your “digital landlord,” Facebook can be compelled to turn over your account information, your photos, your posts, your friends’ list, and any other information you’ve shared online. While the terms of a warrant must be met and approved by a judge, and the legal ramifications for requesting that warrant must be in place, the court’s ruling basically means that Facebook just became your “home.” Just as a landlord can be required to open your apartment for the police if they have a search warrant, Facebook can be required to let investigators take a peek into your activity if a judge agrees that there is adequate reason to do so.
It’s a good thing that thieves committing disability fraud were caught. It’s also good that investigators have learned to turn to social media to catch criminals, saving the tax payers a lot of money in the process of the investigation. But this case should also remind law-abiding citizens of which online behaviors are safe and which ones are risky. Oversharing on social media continues to be a problem for everyday people, especially when criminals know how to take advantage of users who post too much identifying content. But this is one case in which oversharing has turned the tables on a would-be thief.
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