Facebook Stands up to Police in Protecting User Privacy

The social media giant asked authorities investigating Philando Castile's death to rescind a search warrant.

Just-released court documents show how Facebook pushed back against the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s (BCA) request to access private social media messages without informing users, as it related to the shooting death of Philando Castile at the hands of police officer Jeronimo Yanez last summer.

Last week, St. Anthony, Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of all charged related to his role in the death of 32-year-old Philando Castile last summer. Facebook was already a prominent part of the shooting, given that the immediate aftermath of Castile’s death was livestreamed over Facebook by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who, along with her 4-year old daughter, were in the car with Castile when Yanez shot him seven times.

A couple hold a sign protesting the killing of Philando Castile outside the Governor's Mansion on July 7, 2016 in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Getty Images / Stephen Maturen

Reynolds says in the video wanted the livetream to “go viral” and make public the details of the shooting. It did. The video was this week uploaded to the Ramsey County Youtube account with the description, “Evidence presented by Ramsey County Attorney’s Office in State of Minnesota versus Jeronimo Yanez.” It’s below. Warning, it’s graphic.

Besides being the latest incident involving the death of a black individual at the hands of police, the event highlighted the capacity for social media tools like Facebook Live to bring awareness to realtime events that wouldn’t normally be seen by the public. Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg released a statement discussing the social media platform’s role in the tragedy’s publicity.

As it turns out, that wasn’t the only part Facebook would play. As the shooting was being investigated, BCA agents managed to obtain a search warrant to look through Reynolds’ Facebook account for evidence of criminal wrongdoing. The documents are below:

Web engineer and journalist Tony Webster illustrated on Twitter how the search warrant was attached with a gag order which would prevent Facebook from telling Reynolds her account was being searched.

“Facebook fought back hard,” Webster writes.

The company’s lawyers argued that the BCA’s “indefinite non-disclosure agreement” was essentially unconstitutional, and asked BCA to rescind the search warrant. BCA ended up withdrawing its request.

The whole thing is just a small part of the tragedy around Castile’s death, but it’s an important glimpse that raises the question of exactly what is the responsibility for a social media company to inform users authorities are searching through their data or have done so in the past.

To emphasize, Facebook’s objections to the search warrant were local to the gag order, not the broader legal authority for BCA to access Reynold’s account in search of evidence.

“Our policy is to notify people about law enforcement requests for their information before disclosure unless we’re legally barred from doing so,” a Facebook spokesperson told Inverse. “In this case, we decided to challenge gag orders on our ability to provide this important notice, and the authorities ultimately withdrew these warrants altogether.”

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