Justice Department Slaps Facebook with Warrants for Protesters’ Account Information

Posted on October 5, 2017

Al Jazeera reveals that the US Department of Justice, as part of its ongoing prosecution of Inauguration Day protesters, has issued search warrants for a group page and user accounts related to the Disrupt J20 campaign. The three warrants pertain to the Disrupt J20 Facebook page (which has since changed its name to “Resist This”) and two of the page’s active administrators, and compels the disclosure of all status posts, comments, photos, videos, private messages, and video calls related to the two users and group page respectively. In addition , the search order forces the disclosure of data on potentially thousands of Disrupt J20 page visitors, the vast majority of whom have no connection to the ongoing felony rioting prosecution of nearly 200 Inauguration Day protesters (which CCDBR has covered previously).

Though the existence of the search was only revealed this week, due to a gag provision, the warrant was actually filed sometime in early March, predating the Justice Department order against disruptj20.org hosting provider DreamHost in July (which CCDBR also covered) by almost four months. The government voluntarily waived the gag clause after digital and civil rights groups including the ACLU and EFF–along with concerned tech companies including Google, Apple, and Microsoft–submitted amicus statements condemning the provision as part of Facebook-initiated court proceedings to have it lifted. 

Of more concern than how quickly the government pursued the search is the breadth of data it requests. A warrant this comprehensive seeks to invade information which Facebook acquires while compiling the data products that make up its revenue stream. For instance, Facebook saves a copy of everything a user types into the status update or comment boxes even if the user deletes it without submitting it:  a potentially rich source of information on activists and their supporters who may justifiably suspect they are being monitored and word their publicly accessible posts accordingly. Facebook constructs detailed profiles on its users based on the composite of every ounce of information that users intentionally or unintentionally provide (a sense of which this article does a good job of providing). There is no reason to believe that these ad profiles, which capture user lifestyle and consumer habits to an eerily detailed degree, would be exempt from the recently reported warrant, absent reviewing a copy of the warrant, of course, which does not appear to be publicly available.

Privacy and civil liberties advocates expressed grave concern at the immense scope of the warrant, and the pattern of aggressive monitoring of largely peaceful anti-Trump demonstrators which it reinforces. Accordingly, the Washington DC chapter of the ACLU has come to the defense of the warrant’s targets, challenging the search order on the grounds that it is unnecessarily invasive and overly broad. Not only does the Justice Department’s warrant collect deeply personal information which is superfluous to the prosecution of which the warrant is a part, the ACLU argues, but such a “dragnet search” sweeping up data on thousands of peaceful activists constitutes precisely the sort of general warrant which the Fourth Amendment prohibits. 

Indeed, in aggregate, the recent Justice Department searches into the public and private conduct and personal information on anti-Trump protesters almost undoubtedly produce a chilling deterrent toward those who might contemplate future peaceful organizing. When the forum for political discourse has shifted from the village common to internet and social networking platforms, the promise of the First Amendment in the digital age cannot be said to be truly realized in the face of such a warrant.

You can read the full story from Al Jazeera here