Tech industry backs Facebook’s fight to protect user privacy

by Wayne Beynon on September 1, 2014

facebook privacyWhen Edward Snowden revealed the true extent of the USA’s digital surveillance programme last summer, the world’s underlying fears about how social media giants Facebook use private data was brought to the forefront of our consciousness. Following the news that Facebook had co-operated with the US Government in supplying users’ personal data, public scepticism of the social network has reached unprecedented heights, despite the fact that it remains central to people’s social lives. The company’s status as the tech industry’s pantomime villain is all but confirmed.

Despite this less than favourable reputation though, perhaps it’s time we cut Facebook some slack. This week a number of leading tech firms, including Twitter, Google, and Microsoft, have leapt to Facebook’s defence whilst they appeal against a Court Order which forced them to hand over personal details of 381 users to a New York court. The Order dates back to summer 2013, but Facebook were only legally allowed to announce it a couple of months ago because the court issued ‘gag orders’ which have recently expired. This has worrying implications for the future of our online privacy, especially as our social circles become further integrated with online media.

It has been well documented in recent years that the majority of social media websites and applications retain their users’ data on their servers. Facebook is viewed by many as the worst offender, due to the scope of its use and the amount of information provided by users, but other popular sites such as Twitter and Google have also come under fire for perceived wrongdoings of a similar nature. Even Snapchat – the mobile app that sells itself on the fact that pictures delete themselves after viewing – routinely collects user data such as their location and who they’re sending images to the most.

The New York judiciary’s seizure of users’ private information sets a dangerous precedent for the future of privacy online, and it’s unsurprising that the majority of the big hitters in social media are rallying to support Facebook. The debate about whether or not social networks should collect user data at all seems moot now, they already have access to photos, private messages and other information that reveals huge amounts about the private lives of their users. The focus of the debate now shifts towards whether or not the Courts should be able to order seizure of user data for use at trial.

Of course, many believe that there’s no problem if you’ve got nothing to hide, but such a mantra appears flippant in light of the serious privacy concerns at hand. Pursuant to the Court Order, 381 people had their data seized by the authorities for the purposes of evidencing benefit fraud. Of the 381 people, only 62 were charged, which means that 319 innocent Facebook users had their messages – both public and private – photographs, and other data extensively scrutinised by the authorities. To make matters worse, the above mentioned “gag orders” prevented Facebook from telling the press, or informing the 381 users in question that their information had been handed over. At present, those people still do not know their data was seized.

Luckily, this kind of case hasn’t occurred in the UK just yet, but there is still a cause for concern. The way this plays out is likely to have a big impact on the future of online privacy, not only in the USA but across the Western world. Should the US Government win, it paves the way for the possibility that private data collected by social networks could one day be routinely used in courts of law. If Facebook win their appeal, it shows a real statement of intent from tech firms to combat government seizure of user data. The fact that they collected it in the first place will remain a point of contention for users, but by standing up to the courts, social networks will be able to begin the rehabilitation of their image.

Whichever way the ruling goes, this has the potential to be a massive turning point in the privacy of user data online.

Wayne Beynon is a Media & IP lawyer at Cardiff and London based law firm, Capital Law


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