Facebook, Digital Searches and Seizures & the Age-Old Act of Balancing Private and Public Interests

Despite bbusiness-dreyfus-8-150x150eing only a decade old, Facebook, has risen to the top of social media and networking services, reaching a market peak in 2012 with a capitalization of $104 billion. In today’s evermore digitized World, Facebook is much more than just a networking site; it is a form of identity and community through which individual people base and narrate their hypermodern experiences. Staying true to its prodigious reputation, the young Facebook, which inhabits an increasingly fast past and technologically driven society, has started to contribute to a conversation that ancient and modern philosophers alike, who lived in a world much different than ours, have battled with for centuries: the intersection of private and public interests.

Although clashes resulting from the intersection of such instances are certainly not limited to this event, the Manhattan district attorney’s office are currently battling it out with Facebook over a government demand for the contents of hundreds of Facebook accounts. Invoking the Fourth Amendment, that is the constitutional right to be free of unreasonable searches, Facebook claims that the Manhattan prosecutors infringed this right by violating the privacy of the data of 381 people, including photos they had liked and private messages.

At first instance, the ruling of a New York judge favored public interests as opposed to private and stated that Facebook had no standing to contest the search warrants because it acts as an online repository of data, and was not the actual target of the criminal investigation. In terms of the investigation itself, the case’s prosecution attorneys sought to bring claims against a variety of civil servants accused of defrauding the Social Security system with fake disability claims. According to Joan Vollero, a spokeswoman for the Manhattan district attorney, there were as many as 1,000 people who defrauded the government for more than $400 million in benefits. Evidence for these claims was derived from Facebook photos showcasing the supposed disabled civil servants participating in a variety of sports, deep-sea fishing and riding personal watercrafts, to say the least.

Although in this particularly case, which is now on appeal, the justification for the violation of the Fourth Amendment and the preference of public interests to private seems relevant, especially considering the excess waste in government money, not all cases pertaining to digital searches and seizures have warranted such a response. In the landmark U.S. decision Riley v. California (2014) the question as to whether an arrest alone could allow a police officer to search the data available on a person’s smartphone, which could include their Facebook, was posed. The decision, attaching itself to the tag line “New rule for a new world” purports to effectuate that police should not have absolute access to all of the information on one’s cell phone just because it is on one’s person during an arrest.

Nevertheless, the facts of these two respective cases do not match up, and the varying legal analysis can be explained accordingly. In the case of Facebook’s contestation to the government seizure of user’s information, it seems unlikely that the privacy of an individual can overcome the public right to benefit from government expenditures, especially in light of the amount of money that stood at stake and was ultimately misused and lost.

Perhaps this case presents an even larger question: is Facebook a private or public realm to begin with? As Facebook is continually changing privacy settings for users and becoming more of an advertising agent than a human networking platform, indicators can arguable be pointed towards the fact that those that occupy Facebook are in fact occupying a more public domain to begin with. Nevertheless, on the other hand, users need to have trust in Facebook that their private messages will remain private, a statement that has not always remained true.



Like some of the ancients answered, one age old solution that remains applicable to this problem is to simply be cautious as to what you reveal about yourself on the internet. Should you feel that your private rights have been violated by a social media service and or government official, or know someone who is exploiting either service, trusted advice or a solution can be brought to you by Dreyfus.