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U.S. Law Enforcement Obtaining Warrants to Search Facebook Profiles

  1. Balzafire
    NEW YORK – U.S. law-enforcement agencies are increasingly obtaining warrants to search Facebook, often gaining detailed access to users' accounts without their knowledge.

    A Reuters review of the Westlaw legal database shows that since 2008, federal judges have authorized at least two dozen warrants to search individuals' Facebook accounts. Many of the warrants requested a laundry list of personal data such as messages, status updates, links to videos and photographs, calendars of future and past events, "Wall postings" and "rejected Friend requests."

    Federal agencies seeking the warrants include the FBI, DEA and ICE, and the investigations range from arson to rape to terrorism.

    The Facebook search warrants typically demand a user's "Neoprint" and "Photoprint" -- terms that Facebook has used to describe a detailed package of profile and photo information that is not even available to users themselves.

    These terms appear in manuals for law enforcement agencies on how to request data from Facebook. The manuals, posted on various public-advocacy websites, appear to have been prepared by Facebook, although a spokesman for the company declined to confirm their authenticity.

    The review of Westlaw data indicates that federal agencies were granted at least 11 warrants to search Facebook since the beginning of 2011, nearly double the number for all of 2010. The precise number of warrants served on Facebook is hard to determine, in part because some records are sealed, and warrant applications often involve unusual case names. (One example: "USA v. Facebook USER ID Associated with email address jimmietwhitettrashzyahoo.com," a sealed case involving a drug sale.)

    In a telephone interview, Facebook's Chief Security Officer, Joe Sullivan, declined to say how many warrants had been served on the company. He said Facebook is sensitive to user privacy and that it regularly pushes back against law-enforcement "fishing expeditions."

    None of the warrants discovered in the review have been challenged on the grounds that it violated a person's Fourth Amendment protection against unlawful search and seizure, according to a review of the cases.

    Some constitutional-law experts said the Facebook searches may not have been challenged because the defendants - not to mention their "friends" or others whose pages might have been viewed as part of an investigation -- never knew about them.

    By law, neither Facebook nor the government is obliged to inform a user when an account is subject to a search by law enforcement, though prosecutors are required to disclose material evidence to a defendant.

    Twitter and several other social-media sites have formally adopted a policy to notify users when law enforcement asks to search their profile.

    Last January, Twitter also successfully challenged a gag order imposed by a federal judge in Virginia that forbade the company from informing users that the government had demanded their data.

    Twitter said in an email message that its policy was "to help users protect their rights." The Facebook spokesperson would not say whether the company had a similar policy to notify users or if it was considering adopting one.

    In several recent cases, however, Facebook apparently did not inform account-holders or their lawyers about government snooping.

    Last year, several weeks after police apprehended four young Satanists who burned down a church in Pomeroy, Ohio, an FBI agent executed a search warrant on Facebook seeking data about two of the suspects.

    All four ultimately pleaded guilty and received sentences of eight to ten years in state prison (along with a message of forgiveness from a church official who called the sentence "God's time out," and presented them with a Bible). It is unclear if data obtained from the warrant was used in the investigation.

    Lawyers for the two defendants were unaware of the searches until they were contacted by Reuters.

    In another case, the DEA searched the account of Nathan Kuemmerle, a Hollywood psychiatrist who pleaded guilty in Los Angeles federal court after a joint operation last year by the DEA and local police revealed he had run a "pill mill" for celebrity customers.

    Westlaw records show that that the DEA executed a warrant to search Kuemmerle's Facebook account weeks after his arrest.

    At Kuemmerle's bail hearing, a Redondo Beach police detective pointed to comments Kuemmerle made on Facebook and in the site's popular game "Mafia Wars" to argue that he should be denied bail.

    According to Kuemmerle's lawyer, John Littrell, the detective testified on cross-examination that the information was from "an undercover source." Littrell told Reuters that neither he nor his client was ever informed about the warrant, and that he only learned of its existence from Reuters.

    The detective said in an e-mail message that he did not recall being asked about how he obtained the Facebook information. The DEA did not reply to requests for comment.

    The Facebook searches potentially open up new legal challenges in an area that at one time seemed relatively settled: How much protection an individual has against government searches of personal information held by third parties. In a 1976 case, United States v. Miller, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a bank did not have to inform its customer when it turned over his financial records to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

    In doing so, the Supreme Court held that the customer could not invoke Fourth Amendment rights against illegal search and seizure because the records were bank property in which he had no legitimate "expectation of privacy."

    Under this reasoning, a person would have no more expectation of privacy in Facebook content than in bank records. A key difference, however, is the scale of information that resides on social networking sites.

    "It is something new," said Thomas Clancy, a constitutional-law professor at the University of Mississippi. "It's the amount of information and data being provided as a matter of course by third parties."

    Eben Moglen, a cyberlaw professor at Columbia Law School, says the Facebook searches show that courts are ill-equipped to safeguard privacy rights in an age of digital media. In his view, "the solutions aren't legal, they're technical."

    Clancy, the Mississippi professor, said that courts are divided over whether the unprecedented volume of digital records in the possession of third parties should give rise to special rules governing the search of electronic data.

    He added that the Supreme Court had an opportunity to clarify the issue in a case called Ontario v. Quon, but that it decided to "punt."

    The Quon case concerned a California policeman who claimed his employer violated his Fourth Amendment rights when it read sexually explicit messages that he had sent from a work pager.

    The Court found that that the employer's search was not unreasonable, but declined to rule on the degree to which people have a privacy interest in electronic data controlled by others.

    Explaining the court's caution, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "The judiciary risks error by elaborating too fully on the Fourth Amendment implications of emerging technology before its role in society has become clear."

    July 12, 2011


  1. salgoud
    That's why I hate the information age. Big brother is definately watching us and collecting info, somewhat like J. Edgar Hoover kept files on people who did nothing wrong, but had beliefs he did not agree with.

    Background checks can be obtained at a click of a button. Info about anybody can be obtained, illegally (because the laws in the information age are vage.

    There are hackers, persons on the other end in the Web site can see your info, files, etc.

    That's why I download everything on flash cards and delete any info I don't want anyone to see. I also have a shredder in my computer, it shreds files so well, that they are shredded on the hard drive and the next owner on the computer cannot pull up files that are shredded. McAfee offers this option. Be careful what you shred, it will be deleted forever.

  2. Enlightenment

    yeah, i can seriously dig that man. I've recently started helping my dad with "establishing a presence on facebook" for his company, and it is scaring the living hell out of me.
    I'm about ready to pack up my shit and hit the woods, and use all of my old routers as burning material.
    You know it's funny how we thought we were protected by internet freedom acts and whatnot. Eventually all of that crashes and burns and sadly, it's something we have all invested in greatly that comes back to bite us.

    On a lighter note, hopefully one day we'll see a time when any concept of an internet is obsolete compared to the new forms of communication. Can't fuckin wait, right?
  3. EscapeDummy
    What program are you using, if you care to tell? I ask because there was a thread on computer data being recovered here on DF, and law enforcement agencies / a smart enough person can still recover data from file erasing programs, except the best of the best. I'll try to find the link.
  4. Tillianne
    I am curious about this as well.

    I hate to admit it, but while watching the Casey Anthony trial, I did learn a lot of things. One thing I learned was that they were able to recover so-called erased data with a specific program....and I just spaced the name of it!! Damn, I hate when this happens. It will come to me, hopefully.

    My point is that it seemed like they were saying data can never be 100% deleted, and can be recovered at a later time.
  5. EscapeDummy
  6. salgoud
    Yea, I was amazed chatting with a friend on Facebook, they whole conversation was happening like we were sending messages to each other. Hell, one way to erase everything on your hard drive, is just switch it out. Get a new hard drive and throw the other away. Ha, ha. Hell, I don't care, I haven't done anything illegal to go that far.

    That is possible, isn't it, to take your hard drive out and replace it with a new one downloading programs and data you want on the next hard drive, then uploading again. My hard drive says it can hold up to 451 GB. I've only scratched my memory. Temp files, are temp. I have Piriform Cleaner, everytime I get off the internet, I clean my steps, everytime, and that can be four to five times a day. I erase my tracks.

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