Court limits DOJ warrant for Facebook data on Trump protesters

Court limits DOJ warrant for Facebook data on Trump protesters

A court in Washington, D.C., has moved to limit the scope of search warrants obtained by federal investigators for Facebook data in connection with an ongoing investigation into criminal rioting on Inauguration Day. 

As a result of the order, the Department of Justice (DOJ) will be blocked from viewing identifying information on innocent third-party Facebook users who interacted with a page used to organize protests against President Trump on Jan. 20. 

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The particular case involves federal warrants targeting the personal Facebook accounts of two local D.C. activists as well as the public Facebook page for DisruptJ20, which has since been rebranded as “Resist This.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a motion earlier this year to quash the government search warrants targeting the accounts and page, arguing that they are too broad and raised First and Fourth Amendment concerns. 

In a new filing, Chief Judge Robert Morin of the D.C. Superior Court moved to implement a set of “procedural safeguards” to protect the rights of individuals whose data may be caught up in the search of the Facebook page but who are otherwise not connected to the investigation. 

For instance, the court required federal prosecutors to report on their intended search protocols, which the court needs to approve before they move forward.

The court also directed Facebook to hand over the data in redacted form so that it omits identifying information on individuals that are not the account holder. The redactions would only be removed if the government successfully demonstrates to the court that it constitutes possible evidence of crime. 

The government has also agreed to narrow its request for information on the public page to exclude the identities of individuals who liked or followed it, as federal representatives indicated at a public hearing in October.

The safeguards are nearly identical to those instituted by the court in a similar case involving web hosting company DreamHost, which attracted massive attention earlier this year when federal investigators sought data from the company on an anti-Trump website in connection with the investigation into the inaugural protests. 

The ACLU cheered the developments as a win on Monday, but indicated that the court’s restrictions in connection with the two personal Facebook accounts did not go far enough. 

The court directed Facebook to redact identifying information of people who received Facebook messages from the individual accounts and those who became friends with the account holder. However, the court denied the individual account holders’ motion to intervene formally in the case to challenge the warrants targeting their Facebook accounts and the page. 

The court also rejected the ACLU’s argument that the court appoint what is known as a “special master” to review the data from Facebook before turning it over to the government. 

“The court agreed to impose safeguards to protect political activity and third-party communications from government snooping, but was not equally careful to protect our clients’ private and personal communications,” said ACLU senior staff attorney Scott Michelman in a statement.

The warrants cover data from the accounts and page limited to the three months between Nov. 1, 2016, and Feb. 9, 2017.

The government has indicted more than 200 individuals on felony rioting charges in connection with the Jan. 20 protests.