Court: privacy on social networking sites is wishful thinking

Defendant is permitted access to plaintiff’s social networking accounts as part of discovery in personal injury case.

Romano v. Steelcase Inc., — N.Y.S.2d —, 2010 WL 3703242 (N.Y.Sup. September 21, 2010)

Plaintiff sued defendant for personal injury that allegedly caused her to lose her enjoyment of life. During discovery, plaintiff refused to voluntarily turn over the contents of her Myspace and Facebook accounts. So defendant filed a motion to compel plaintiff to consent to having Facebook and MySpace turn over all current and deleted content from the accounts. (That consent was necessary because without it, the sites would violate the Stored Communications Act.) The court granted the motion to compel.

The court found that the information contained in the profiles was “material and necessary” to the case. In drawing its conclusion, the court dispensed with any notion that a user’s privacy settings should affect the analysis. Denying defendant access to the information, the court found, would not only go against New York’s policy favoring liberal discovery, but “would condone Plaintiff’s attempt to hide relevant information behind self-regulated privacy settings.” Plaintiff had put her physical condition at issue, so it was fair for defendant to get evidence that may contradict the assertions of injury.

The court rejected plaintiff’s argument that disclosure of the information would violate her right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment. Fatal to any assertion of privacy was the fact that plaintiff had voluntarily made her information available on the sites. The court looked to earlier New York cases dealing with email to find that plaintiff had no expectation of privacy in the social networking data.

And the court made a sweeping declaration about the state of online privacy that is worth noting. Quoting from a law review article, the court observed that in the social media environment, “privacy is no longer grounded in reasonable expectations, but rather in some theoretical protocol better known as wishful thinking.”

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