Court Dismisses Claim of Privacy in Social Media Content

In Palmieri v. United States, -- F.Supp.3d --, No. CV 12-1403 (JDB) (D.D.C. Nov. 3, 2014), U.S. District Judge John D. Bates held that the plaintiff had no constitutional expectation of privacy with respect to social-media content that he had shared with on-line ‘friends.’  Accordingly, the court dismissed the plaintiff’s claim that his Fourth-Amendment rights had been violated when a ‘friend’ (who was also an individually named defendant) shared the plaintiff’s on-line postings and related content with his government-agency employer.

Judge Bates noted that the government had neither hacked the plaintiff’s Facebook account nor subpoenaed the information from Facebook.  Rather, the government obtained the information from a co-defendant, who was part of the plaintiff’s social network on Facebook and thereby had access to this content.  Judge Bates stated that an individual “generally has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of his computer;” however, this expectation “may be extinguished” if and when the individual “disseminates [this] information to the public through a website,” or “voluntarily turns [it] over to third parties.”  This, noted the court, remained true “even if the information is revealed on the assumption that it will be used only for a limited purpose and the confidence placed in the third party will not be betrayed.”  Once given access to this information, the plaintiff’s Facebook ‘friends' were “free to use the information however they wanted—including sharing it with the Government.”  Hence, a party may access an adverse party’s social-media content “through an individual who is a ‘friend’ without violating the Fourth Amendment.”

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