Facebook: Is Government-Mandated Data Extraction Warranted?

Aug 18, 2014

Privacy policies have been widely debated throughout the history of social media.  Their ability to dictate users’ expectations for their personal data (and its accessibility by third parties) came further into question this week when a New York court ordered Facebook to turn over files for nearly 400 users in a disability fraud case.  Various media outlets reported that Zuckerbeg & Co. were put under a gag order by the court not to disclose that users’ data had been requested.  That order was later lifted, but the realization amongst account holders that Facebook, and other social media companies, do not fully control their platforms in the face of government could not be undone.

Said one Google spokesperson: “Communications providers like Google and Facebook need to be able to challenge warrants for user information, and should be able to alert users when their information has been requested.”  What would a notification system achieve, though?  If the user receives an alert after the government has already accessed his or her data, it becomes little more than an arbitrary update.  The damage has been done at that point.  The idea of notifying users beforehand, however, is likely a much larger issue for courts and government figures.  Alerting a criminal, for example, that their data is subject to a search warrant before analyzing it would do little to assist government officials in their pursuits.  Why not send the outlaw a notification to flee the country, too?  So while the notion of an alert system is certainly romantic, its effectiveness, much like privacy policies, remains in question.

Silicon Valley’s biggest players from Dropbox, to LinkedIn, Yelp, Twitter and Kickstarter backed Facebook this week by filing amicus briefs, signaling a community unified in its attempts to maintain authority over their respective databases.  In a similar vein, the New York court feels a need to protect its citizens from danger and fraudulent behavior.  The result?  A Catch-22 situation: both parties are at odds, defending the groups of people they govern from what they perceive as detrimental.  How does one not compromise the security of the other?

Why It’s Better to Align Forces than Wage a War

My feeling is that social media companies and government agencies, like courts, need to work together to identify the legal ramifications of the platforms before they bubble over in the public eye (again).  I also think it will be difficult to govern such a rapidly evolving industry without legislation that develops just as quickly, furthering the case for collaboration between Silicon Valley and Washington DC.  Looking ahead, cross-sector co-innovation will become crucial not only when it comes to balancing the supply and demand of information, but also to form policies in advance that provide citizens and consumers appropriate expectations for their data and who is allowed to use it.

How do you see Silicon Valley and Washington DC working together to protect people and their data in the future?

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