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Cybersecurity

Facebook says users’ rights at risk as it fights government access order

The case has ­implications for the First Amendment rights of users and others who are politically active online

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 July, 2017, 11:03pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 July, 2017, 11:33pm

Major technology companies and civil liberties groups have joined Facebook in a closed courtroom battle over secret government access to social media records.

Facebook is fighting a court ­order that prohibits it from letting users know when law enforcement investigators ask to search their political communications – a ban Facebook says tramples First Amendment protections of the company and individuals.

Most of the details of the case in the US capital are under wraps, but the timing of the investigation, and references in public court documents, suggest the search warrants relate to demonstrations during President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

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More than 200 people were detained and many have been charged with felony rioting in the January 20 protests that injured police and damaged property in downtown Washington.

The Facebook battle in the Washington Court of Appeals is similar to challenges percolating throughout the country from technology companies objecting to how the government seeks access to internet data in emails or social media accounts during criminal investigations.

The case has ­implications for the First Amendment rights of Facebook users and others who are politically active online. The constitution can only protect the targets of an investigation, according to the court filings, if they know their rights are under threat.

Prosecutors are trying to prevent Facebook from giving users advance warning of search warrants linked to investigations.

Prosecutors typically ask judges for non-disclosure orders when they are concerned that tipped-off targets will destroy evidence, flee or otherwise undermine an investigation.

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A spokesman for the US attorney’s office declined to comment on the sealed case that is scheduled for argument in September.

Nate Cardozo of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which filed in support of Facebook’s objections to the gag order, said the government had routinely overused non-disclosure orders to try to keep its surveillance activities secret. When a criminal investigation, such as the one into inauguration day protesters, was widely covered, he said, “there is no need for it to remain secret”.

The American Civil Liberties Union, EFF and the coalition of technology companies and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said targeted Facebook users should have a chance to challenge warrants in court when their rights to engage in anonymous political speech were at stake and when the government probe was not a secret