On Thursday, a ruling by a federal judge in Brooklyn declared that Facebook could not be forced by prosecutors to remain silent about the 15 grand-jury subpoenas that pertain to the social network’s customers. James Orenstein, the judge said that the concerns of the prosecutors were legitimate as their investigations may be compromised, but he also said that the boilerplate requests made by the government in a language identical to that of the 15 applications of a gag order lacked sufficient details. The judge wrote that investigating crime was undoubtedly a difficult task for the government agents and prosecutors.
He added that it got more complicated when some of the investigative techniques that the investigators have to use end up backfiring and the criminals are alerted to the direction of the investigation. Nonetheless, he went on to say that an order cannot be obtained by law-enforcement officers that hampers the freedom of service providers from disclosing information to their clients without making a specific showing of need for it to happen. In recent months, a number of cases have emerged that highlight the growing tensions between the desires of the government to conduct criminal inquiries secretly and the rights of internet and technology companies such as Facebook to maintain autonomy over their businesses.
Last month, the Justice Department was sued by Microsoft Corp in order to halt the federal officials from taking advantage of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act by keeping their requests for information about the customers of the software giant under wraps. In recent months, there had also been a tussle between Apple Inc. and the FBI after the latter had tried to force the smartphone giant to unlock the iPhones that had been connected to some of its criminal investigations. As far as Facebook is concerned, Brooklyn’s federal prosecutors had attempted to hide the existence of subpoenas as per the Stored Communications Act.
The act gives courts the power to stop tech companies from providing details about orders of information received from the government such as subpoenas and warrants and this is done only for the purpose of protecting the sensitive nature of criminal probes. The Jude said that he had received 15 separate sealed requests from the prosecutors and each had borne the same title. All the requests had been filed in Brooklyn and were seeking permission for barring Facebook from making a mention of the subpoenas with the exception of its lawyers.
The primary reason behind these requests was said to be a fear that the targets of these covert investigations would be alerted and they would attempt to tamper with the evidence or worse, flee. The ruling by the judge didn’t reveal the information that had been asked of Facebook and this also left room for the possibility that if the prosecutors convinced him, he would implement the gag orders on Facebook. However, according to Facebook’s policy on dealing with law-enforcement inquiries, they inform the user of this request unless they are specifically prohibited from doing so.