With so much of the Facebook business model relying on the data they collect from members, it’s inevitable that there will be a regular slew of stories about privacy and the like. The recent news of news feeds being manipulated as part of a psychological experiment emphasized the concerns many have.
Alas, when it comes to external organizations trawling the site for information, most instances occur in a recruitment style context, with present or future employers looking at the content shared by employees with a view to influencing HR type decisions. That most of the information they harvest is in the public domain has not been enough to stop various legal claims suggesting that the practice is wrong and discriminatory.
A slightly more serious case emerged recently that should be a major cause for concern amongst anyone who cares about their privacy online. It was revealed that the district attorney of Manhattan had obtained nearly 400 search warrants that would enable them to trawl through the Facebook profiles of those people, public or private, in the hunt for information pertaining to their level of disability.
The clear belief was that the suspects were believed to not be disabled at all, and a browse of their Facebook photos and updates would reveal as much. What’s more, the ruling barred Facebook from talking publicly about the warrant.
The search ultimately led to just over 100 New York police and fireman arrested for what was believed to be welfare fraud in relation to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Judges in the case resisted calls by Facebook to block the search warrant, suggesting that only users themselves could do so, but of course, if the users aren’t aware that their accounts are being spied on, it’s kinda hard for them to object.
Facebook also complained that the warrants were excessively broad, allowing police to access every single aspect of each suspects profile, regardless of whether that was relevant to the case or not. They suggested that this was akin to allowing police to seize everything in someone’s home as part of the search process.
Suffice to say, this seems to be only the beginning of this affair. If the courts decide that such searches are indeed valid, then it could easily trigger a flurry of similar cases whereby law enforcement agencies, tax collection agencies and the like begin trawling through Facebook profiles in search of evidence of malpractice. It will in effect render the privacy settings on your account irrelevant if people high enough want to look at it.