In an interesting twist from the usual news about Facebook and privacy, occasional reports are now surfacing, saying that the social networking giant actively protects user data from some who request it. Namely defendants in criminal cases.
The most recent account is in a news report yesterday in the Oregonian, Facebook argues to protect user content in Portland murder case. You can read that article if you’re interested in details specific to that trial, but the over-arching idea is what matters here.
First, Facebook often turns over user data when government requests it – including when prosecutors at trial request it. But when defense attorneys attempt to get even their own clients’ information from Facebook, they are met with claims that the site cannot beacuse of a 1986 Internet privacy law.
What’s the difference?
In law, the difference is that when a court orders a site like Facebook to relinquish information, the law says that they must, or be found in contempt and liable to pay huge fines. In practice, this means that prosecutors and law enforcement can request information via the courts (through a warrant) and likely receive little or no objection, but defense attorneys, who do not have the power to issue warrants, cannot and can only subpoena the court to do so.
This creates an obvious imbalance in the way online information is handled in court. Given today’s glut of personal information that’s often posted on various websites like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and so on, it’s a wonder that this has not been a more talked-about aspect of today’s justice system.
Defense attorneys can get medical records, bank records, personnel files, cell phone records, and more. But they can’t get Facebook timelines or conversations.