Google Refuses To Unlock Pimp's Phone

Joining other social media companies that are watching as their users’ privacy rights are gradually whittled away, Google is standing up to the growing trend of government attempts to go through third-party social media companies to get to users’ information.

Google is reportedly challenging the legality of a search warrant the FBI served on the company earlier this year in an effort to crack the Android phone of Dante Dears, a man who was running a prostitution business on his cell phone.

The FBI wants into the phone in order to prove Dears continued to run Pimpin’ Hoes Daily, even after he went to prison for it. When confronted with evidence that he’d violated his parole, he handed the phone over but refused to unlock it. Unable to get into the phone because of its privacy settings, which locked agents out after too many failed password attempts, the agency applied for a subpoena against Google to force it to unlock the thing.


“Privacy Issues Abound”
“It is not surprising Google is challenging the FBI’s search warrant,” says Mark Clark, a partner with Traverse Legal in Traverse, Mich. “It’s really both a business and policy decision by Google relative to its users and specifically the Android phone users. Privacy issues abound in the tech age as also demonstrated by the furor over Facebook’s changes to privacy policies.”

Both Twitter and Facebook have been faced with different kinds of challenges to their privacy policies: Twitter recently knuckled under and provided a user’s tweets to the Manhattan DA’s office in order to avoid heavy fines, and Facebook has caught all kinds of flack about changes to its privacy policy that shorted users.

Now Google is stepping up to the plate – but rather noncommittally. According to a statement Google provided to the blog Ars Technica, “Like all law-abiding companies, we comply with valid legal process. Whenever we receive a request we make sure it meets both the letter and spirit of the law before complying. If we believe a request is overly broad, we will seek to narrow it.”

“Although most terms of use policies provide that companies such as Apple, Google and Facebook will not disclose personal or private information absent a court order or subpoena, there is a significant segment of the public which values an effort from companies to take a stand against turning over information to the government simply because the government asks for it,” notes Clark.

“Challenging the government’s right, in this case the FBI, demonstrates to the public that Google will take measures to protect private consumer information which Google has apparently decided is good public relations,” he adds.


Impact Could Be Far-Reaching
Whether Google will be successful is an open question. Twitter ultimately threw user and Occupy Wall Street protester Malcolm Harris under the bus, and law enforcement seems to be winning the war in the courts over access to Facebook users’ accounts and friends.

“Typically it is difficult in general to quash a search warrant in a criminal case,” observes Clark. “Typically, the remedy is for the individual under investigation to argue the warrant was defective after the fact.” But here, a third party is having to challenge law enforcement efforts, and the law concerning third party obligations is changing daily.

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While Clark says the Dears case won’t have much of an impact on the privacy rights of Android users who are not being investigated as part of Pimpin’ Hoes Daily-like operations, “it is possible the court could fashion its opinion to make this a case of more far-reaching impact,” he says. “We need to wait and see.”

Law enforcement is increasingly using Twitter and Facebook posts to identify and track would-be criminals, and so the boundaries of what information is posted online in a ‘private’ account carries with it a legitimate expectation of privacy under the First Amendment will be an emerging area of both First and Fourth Amendment privacy concerns,” Clark concludes.

Do you think Google and other third-party social media companies have a responsibility to challenge government attempts to violate their users’ privacy? Share your opinion below.

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