The federal disability program has been under attack from elected officials in recent years, as accusations of rampant fraud attempt to shake the public’s trust in the program. Disability fraud is actually quite rare, but a high profile case has brought it to the public’s attention. This investigation found hundreds of cases of disability fraud in New York using a surprising tool: Facebook.
Facebook is a treasure trove of information. We tell it everything: what we’re doing, what we’re watching, what we like, what we want. Some of us are comforted by Facebook’s privacy settings; we know that most of the stuff we share will only be seen by friends. But federal and state agents don’t need to be your friend in order to get this information. Instead, they get a warrant.
In 2013, Facebook was served with 381 warrants from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. as part of an investigation into disability fraud. The District Attorney’s office ended up charging 106 people with disability fraud in early 2014. The charges were mostly targeted at former New York City police officers and firefighters. Most officers claimed that were so emotionally scarred that they couldn’t leave the house. One then posted a picture of himself driving a water scooter while flipping off the camera.
Facebook attempted to fight the warrants, arguing that they were too vast. The Manhattan DA requested almost all of the data from individual accounts: what people liked, their photos, and private messages included. Facebook’s appeals were denied on multiple occasions, most recently by the New York Supreme Court last month."The vast scope of the Government’s search and seizure here would be unthinkable in the physical world," Facebook argued in their opening statement.
The courts decided against Facebook because, according to their reading of the current laws on the books, Facebook does not have a right to fight against warrants on behalf of their users. They reached this ruling despite sharing Facebook’s concerns: "Facebook users share more intimate personal information through their Facebook accounts than may be revealed through rummaging about one's home," Justice Dianne Renwick wrote in her opinion for the New York Supreme Court, which ruled 5 to 0 in favor of the DA’s office.
This ruling has wide-ranging ramifications, even if you’re not a disability fraudster. Justice Renwick wrote that "of the 381 targeted Facebook user accounts only 62 were actually charged with any crime." Do you feel comfortable knowing that 319 innocent people had their Facebook data read and analyzed by government agents?
Think about how much of your personal information exists on servers owned by a corporation. Think about your Facebook photos, status updates, private messages. Think about your Gmail account. Think about your private Pinterest wedding board. You may think you’re the only person with access to your accounts, but ultimately, your data is accessible to anyone with a broad warrant.
More than any other age group, millennials are well aware of the trade-off between privacy and technological features. As our reliance on apps and our phones grows, however, so does our comfort level. It can be easy to forget that what’s available on the internet is, usually, available to everybody.
Take, for example, the Port Authority cop who collected disability for an injured arm while he posted videos of himself "flailing both of his arms" while performing with his punk band. Or the guy who posted a video of himself covered in tinfoil and dancing to Steppenwolf’s "Magic Carpet Ride." He had been collecting disability benefits for eighteen years before his YouTube video revealed the truth to investigators.
You might be thinking, "I don’t need to worry about my data. I understand privacy settings, I’m careful about what I share online, and I don’t plan on committing any sort of crime, let alone disability fraud, in the near future. Why should I care about any of this?"
First, let’s remember that 319 people had their Facebook accounts, including private messages, sifted through by federal agents without being charged with a crime. If getting warrants for Facebook accounts becomes a common tactic for disability fraud, it’s easy to imagine it spreading to other sorts of crimes as well.
While any of the people charged can challenge the validity of the warrant pretrial, there’s no recourse for the people who were not charged with a crime.
The best (and most difficult) thing you can do to prevent yourself from becoming a victim of one of these vast warrants is to push for new laws that ask for higher bars to be set for authorities looking to get data from Facebook or another tech company. Seeing as how there is much more private information about you to be learned by sifting through your Facebook profile than there is by rummaging through your home, it should be more difficult to obtain digital warrants.
Until those laws have been rewritten, however, lawbreakers should probably keep their disability fraud separate from their social networking accounts.