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Google, Microsoft, others backing Facebook in fight over user privacy in New York

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Tech companies and civil liberties unions are trying to fend off warrants

Facebook's getting some company in its fight with the New York district attorney's office over the protection of user data from government investigations, something that has quickly become a battle over constitutional rights. Today, a number of major tech companies including Dropbox, Foursquare, Google, Kickstarter, LinkedIn, Meetup, Microsoft, Pinterest, Twitter, Tumblr, and Yelp, along with the New York Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU, filed amicus briefs in support of Facebook.

In a trio of filings today, the groups collectively argue that bulk warrants like the one that required Facebook to hand over user data for 381 users over to the NYDA are problematic, especially when attached to so-called "gag orders" that keep companies from alerting users that they are under investigation.

"Unless Facebook is able to assert its subscribers' constitutional rights — and any of its own rights — the legality of the government's actions with respect to those subscribers will escape review altogether. And had the government chosen to indict no one, no one would have been the wiser," reads the opener of a filing from Google, Pinterest, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yelp.

Adding to that, the New York Civil Liberties Union in its brief warned that the NYDA has since provided "no reasonable expectation" that the same thing won't happen in the future. That's especially troubling given the nature of the information that people are storing on the service with the intent of keeping it private, it added.

"Government entities shouldn't be conducting broad fishing expeditions."

"The sensitive information we share on social media, like where we're going and who we're seeing, our political affiliations, our hobbies and our private conversations, are owed the highest level of protection," New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman said in a statement about the group's filing. "Government entities shouldn't be conducting broad fishing expeditions into our personal and social conversations with our family and friends with no regard to our privacy."

The personal data of those Facebook users was handed over to Manhattan prosecutors as part of an investigation last year, eventually leading to 130 of those individuals being indicted for allegedly defrauding the Social Security system. But according to Facebook, the scope of the warrants used to get that information was too broad, and there was little it could do to say no or alert those users. The company took that issue to the New York Supreme Court, but was shot down. It's now appealing the matter in the hopes of limiting the scope of future government data requests.