Trump administration's attempt to access protesters' private Facebook data limited by judge

Trump administration's attempt to access protesters' private Facebook data limited by judge”

The Department of Justice originally sought Facebook information from the two individuals' accounts and the DisruptJ20 page, including all private messages, friend lists, status updates, comments, photos, video and other information that would otherwise be considered private on the social network.

The US government was sharply criticised by privacy advocates after serving the dragnet warrants, two of which target political activists Lacy MacAuley and Legba Carrefour.

In his 21-page order issued Thursday, Morin distinguished between the two individual accounts and the DistruptJ20 Facebook page used as a “common forum” by many people.

"While the government has the right to execute its warrants, it does not have the right to rummage through the information contained on the Facebook accounts and discover the identity of, or access communications by, individuals not participating in alleged criminal activity, particularly those persons who were engaging in protected First Amendment activities", Morin wrote.

The warrant also sought information the users and administrators of the page took on Facebook, including all searches performed, groups joined and "all data and information that has been deleted by the user". Prosecutors had already agreed to narrow their request to exclude the identities of people who contacted the accountholders or liked or friended them.

That doesn't mean the DOJ can never get this information - they'll just have to give the court a "search protocol" that will, if approved, let the department peruse the DisruptJ20 page.

The court did, however, reject a suggestion from the ACLU that a neutral third party review the material prior to it being turned over to the government, if only to remove personal information irrelevant to the investigation - which has yet to produce any criminal charges against MacAulay and Carrefour.

“The risk for disclosure of private political speech and association of innocent persons to the government can not be ignored and therefore additional protections are necessary, ” according to D.C. Superior Court Chief Robert E. Morin. "Therefore, the court deems it appropriate in this case to implement procedural safeguards to preserve the First Amendment and Fourth Amendment freedoms at stake and ensure that only data containing potential incriminating evidence is disclosed to the government". The judge said he was trying to balance individual rights to private online expression with the governments ability to prosecute criminals.

Morin wrote that the government established probable cause to access information about the two individual accountholders - Legba Carrefour and Lacy MacAuley - and if any personal information was "intermingled" with potential evidence, that was the effect of their decision to store data with Facebook, a third-party company.

ACLU attorney Scott Michelman said in a statement that although Morin ordered restrictions to shield third-party communications, the judge "was not equally careful to protect our clients' private and personal communications".

"Our clients, who have not been charged with any crime, expect that when they send private Facebook messages about, for instance, their medical history or traumatic events in their lives, those messages will remain private unless the government shows probable cause to search those particular messages, which it has not done", Michelman said. However, the court denied the individual account holders' motion to intervene formally in the case to challenge the warrants targeting their Facebook accounts and the page. More than 200 people were arrested, and DOJ issued search warrants asking Facebook to turn over information that could reveal evidence of "rioting or intent to riot".

A spokesman for the USA attorney's office in Washington declined to comment.

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