NEW YORK -- Prosecutors building a sweeping disabilities-benefit fraud case got a trove of data from the Facebook accounts of more than 380 people, the social media giant said this week as it disclosed a nearly yearlong legal fight over the largest set of search warrants it has ever received.
Facebook ultimately turned over the information but is appealing the court order that required it to do so, saying prosecutors intruded on users’ privacy. The Manhattan district attorney’s office and a judge have said the search warrants were justified.
The dispute adds to a roster of clashes between authorities and Internet companies over law enforcement efforts to scrutinize people’s online lives for potential evidence.
"It’s part of a trend toward more aggressive challenges by Internet providers on behalf of their customers," said Orin Kerr, a George Washington University law professor who specializes in issues surrounding computers and crime.
It began secretly last July, when Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Melissa Jackson approved 381 search warrants for various Facebook users’ postings, friend lists, photos, private messages and other data, according to court filings unsealed Wednesday and first reported by The New York Times. The users ranged from high school students to grandparents, Facebook said in a filing last week.
Sixty-two of those users are among the 134 people charged in the case, Deputy General Counsel Chris Sonderby wrote in a blog post Thursday.
The warrants aimed to gather evidence against police and fire retirees allegedly coached to claim they were too psychologically devastated to work even as they golfed, rode motorcycles and otherwise led robust lives -- and sometimes posted the alleged proof on Facebook. More than half of the 134 defendants so far have pleaded guilty. Prosecutors say up to 1,000 people may have been involved and more charges could come.
Menlo Park, California-based Facebook argued the warrants cast a net as wide as "the digital equivalent of seizing everything in someone’s home."
"Except here, it is not a single home but an entire neighborhood of nearly 400 homes," the company wrote in last week’s filing.
But prosecutors say they gave the judge a 93-page explanation of why each targeted account would likely yield evidence.
"The defendants in this case repeatedly lied to the government about their mental, physical, and social capabilities. Their Facebook accounts told a different story," DA’s office spokeswoman Joan Vollero said in a statement Friday.
Jackson rebuffed Facebook’s objections in a now-unsealed September ruling, saying law enforcement has "the authority to search and seize a massive amount of material to seek evidence," even if some of the items turn out to be irrelevant.
An appeals court declined in November to hold off Jackson’s order while Facebook’s appeal plays out. Facebook then surrendered the information.
Over the years, online companies have sometimes prevailed in pushing back on authorities’ demands for information about their users. They also have lost some fights; Titter, for instance, objected but ultimately acceded to Manhattan prosecutors’ demands for three months of tweets by an Occupy Wall Street protester in a disorderly conduct case. Twitter had been threatened with steep fines for refusing and lost an appeal.