No Fourth Amendment violation when government looked at Facebook profile using friend’s account

U.S. v. Meregildon, — F.Supp.2d —, 2012 WL 3264501 (S.D.N.Y. August 10, 2012)

The government suspected defendant was involved in illegal gang activity and secured the assistance of a cooperating witness who was a Facebook friend of defendant. Viewing defendant’s profile using the friend’s account, the government gathered evidence of probable cause (discussion of past violence, threats, and gang loyalty maintenance) which it used to swear out a search warrant.

What you do on Facebook is almost guaranteed to come back and bite you in the ass.

Defendant argued that the means by which the government obtained the probable cause evidence – by viewing content protected by defendant’s Facebook privacy settings – violated defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights. The court denied defendant’s motion to suppress.

It held that where Facebook privacy settings allowed viewership of postings by friends, the Government could access them through a friend/cooperating witness without violating the Fourth Amendment. The court compared the scenario to how a person loses his legitimate expectation of privacy when the government records a phone call with the consent of a cooperating witness who participates in the call. It held that defendant’s legitimate expectation of privacy ended when he disseminated posts to his Facebook friends because those friends were then free to use the information however they wanted, including sharing it with the government.

Photo credit: Flickr user Poster Boy NYC under this Creative Commons license.

Did a Facebook breakup cause a murder?

According to this news report, a man in Martinsville, Indiana allegedly shot the mother of his 14-month-old daughter after the woman broke up with him through Facebook. Though one should not jump to concluding that Facebook caused this murder, we are left to consider whether the nature of social media communications contributed to the alleged killer’s motivation.

public breakup

Breaking up is supposed to be a private event. Though we do not know the precise means the woman used to communicate the breakup (was it a private message or an IM, or was it more public like a status update or wall post?), one cannot help but notice the incongruity of using a social media platform to communicate a sensitive matter. Equally intriguing as the breakup is the man’s alleged apology in advance that he posted to Facebook before the murder.

Social media, just like any technology, gives us choices. Stories like this show how, in certain circumstances, human nature may not always be up to the task of making the right decisions when that process is affected by a novel context like the seemingly public context of Facebook.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Unlisted Sightings under this license.

Reading a non-friend’s comment on Facebook wall was not a privacy invasion

Sumien v. CareFlite, 2012 WL 2579525 (Tex.App. July 5, 2012)

Plaintiff, an emergency medical technician, got fired after he commented on his coworker’s Facebook status update. The coworker had complained in her post about belligerent patients and the use of restraints. Here is plaintiff’s comment:

Yeah like a boot to the head…. Seriously yeah restraints and actual HELP from [the police] instead of the norm.

After getting fired, plaintiff sued his former employer for, among other things, “intrusion upon seclusion” under Texas law. That tort requires a plaintiff to show (1) an intentional intrusion, physical or otherwise, upon another’s solitude, seclusion or private affairs that (2) would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.

The trial court threw out the case on summary judgment. Plaintiff sought review with the Court of Appeals of Texas. On appeal, the court affirmed the summary judgment award.

The court found plaintiff failed to provide any evidence his former employer “intruded” when it encountered the offending comment. Plaintiff had presented evidence that he misunderstood his co-worker’s Facebook settings, did not know who had access to his co-worker’s Facebook Wall, and did not know how his employer was able to view the comment. But none of these misunderstandings of the plaintiff transformed the former employer’s viewing of the comment into an intentional tort.

Read Professor Goldman’s post on this case.


Photo credit: Flickr user H.L.I.T. under this license.

Why be concerned with social media estate planning?

The headline of this recent blog post by the U.S. government promises to answer the question of why you should do some social media estate planning. But the post falls short of providing a compelling reason to plan for how your social media accounts and other digital assets should be handled in the event of your demise. So I’ve come up with my own list of reasons why this might be good both for the individual and for our culture:

Security. People commit identity theft on both the living and the dead. (See, for example, the story of the Tennessee woman who collected her dead aunt’s Social Security checks for 22 years.) While the living can run credit checks and otherwise monitor the use of their personal information, the deceased are not so diligent. Ensuring that the dataset comprising a person’s social media identity is accounted for and monitored should reduce the risk of that information being used nefariously.

Avoiding sad reminders. Spammers have no qualms with commandeering a dead person’s email account. As one Virginia family knows, putting a stop to that form of “harassment” can be painful and inconvenient.

Keeping social media uncluttered. This reason lies more in the public interest than in the interest of the deceased and his or her relatives. The advertising model for social media revenue generation relies on the accuracy and effectiveness of information about the user base. The presence of a bunch of dead peoples’ accounts, which are orphaned, so to speak, dilutes the effectiveness of the other data points in the social graph. So it is a good thing to prune the accounts of the deceased, or otherwise see that they are properly curated.

Preserving our heritage for posterity. Think of the ways you know about your family members that came before you. Stories and oral tradition are generally annotated by photo albums, personal correspondence and other snippets of everyday life. Social media is becoming a preferred substrate for the collection of those snippets. To have that information wander off into the digital ether unaccounted for is to forsake a means of knowing about the past.

How big a deal is this, anyway? This Mashable article commenting on the U.S. government post says that last year about 500,000 Facebook users died. That’s about 0.0006% of the user base. (Incidentally, Facebook users seem much less likely to die than the general population, as 0.007% of the world’s entire population died last year. Go here if you want to do the math yourself.)

I say it’s kind of a big deal, but a deal that’s almost certain to get bigger.

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