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Facebook contests search warrants of users’ pages, gag order

A Facebook logo is displayed on an iPad

A Facebook logo is displayed on an iPad in Philadelphia on May 16, 2012. Credit: AP

ALBANY — Facebook fought back Tuesday in New York’s highest court to oppose “bulk” search warrants that had sought to expose 381 of its users’ intimate information — from “their families to their sexual orientation, all caught in a dragnet.”

Facebook also contests the constitutionality of a gag order that a lower court issued that had prohibited the social media giant from notifying users that their pages were examined by law enforcement.

“The district attorney’s position in this case is chilling,” said Facebook’s attorney, Thomas H. Dupree Jr.

“Law enforcement is always going to be bumping up against privacy,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said. He noted technology and the amount of information available online that could aid law enforcement is exploding and, “I don’t think our statutes have yet caught up.”

That’s what the Court of Appeals may do if it takes the case argued Tuesday in Albany.

The judges on Tuesday spent considerable time asking questions aimed at determining if the case can rise to a constitutional issue, in part because Vance’s court orders could be seen as subpoenas rather than search warrants. That would trigger review of different laws to frame the case.

Facebook argues Vance’s search warrant appears to function as a subpoena, and if so would violate the federal Stored Communications Act. That law gives internet companies similar protections afforded to individuals under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment right against “unreasonable searches and seizures” by government.

The case stems from a massive 2013 investigation by Vance into whether New York City police officers and firefighters were fraudulently collecting Social Security disability benefits for claims including insomnia and inability to make eye contact in conversations. They had claimed mental disabilities due to the trauma of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The probe included 381 search warrants to examine Facebook pages of the suspects. The warrants were based on an affidavit of specific accusations and evidence, which Facebook has sought unsuccessfully to examine.

“These individuals were faking lifestyles,” Vance said. “They claimed they couldn’t leave the house, couldn’t go bowling, couldn’t see their family.”

Lawyer Raymond Lavallee of Massapequa, a former FBI agent working in Nassau County who was accused of leading the $400 million fraud and kickback scheme, pleaded guilty to fourth-degree conspiracy. Sixty-two of the Facebook users and 70 others were indicted in 2014.

Lavallee, once an FBI agent and chief of the Nassau district attorney’s rackets bureau, had faced up to 25 years in prison on the top charge, first-degree larceny.

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