NY Judge Says Facebook Posts Can Be Used as Court Evidence -- Even if They're Private
As Forbes explains, the Suffolk County, New York case involved a woman who was personally injured after falling out of an office chair in 2003. Claiming that the incident was due to the chair's defective construction, the plaintiff, Kathleen Romano, filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer, seeking damages for the injuries she sustained. The chair company's lawyers, however, were skeptical of the true extent of her injuries, citing public photos on Romano's Facebook profile that showed the defendant smiling in front of her home, instead of suffering from, say, a hospital bed. Her public Facebook history, moreover, revealed that she'd taken a vacation to Florida shortly after sustaining the allegedly severe injuries. On these grounds, then, the defense argued that there may be more salient evidence to be culled from the private areas of her profile, and requested a subpoena to access both her Facebook and MySpace accounts.
At first, Facebook refused to hand over Romano's data, on the basis that doing so would violate federal law. The judge, however, disagreed. "Both Facebook and MySpace are social networking sites where people can share information about their personal lives, including posting photographs and sharing information about what they are doing or thinking," wrote Justice Jeffrey Arlen Spinner. Spinner went on to argue that when the woman "created her Facebook and MySpace accounts, she consented to the fact that her personal information would be shared with others, notwithstanding her privacy settings. Indeed, that is the very nature and purpose of these social networking sites else they would cease to exist."
We're still not sure about his thoughts on the implicit transparency of social networking as a whole, but we do think that Spinner's ruling was sound, albeit for different reasons. In this case, the defense used her public pictures as justification for further investigation, which, if you think about it, is no different than a police officer searching a speeder's car after smelling marijuana. As long as the defense lawyers have a legally sound justification for breaching someone's privacy, they should be able to do so. To argue that Facebook users should always expect their information to be rendered public, on the other hand, would irrationally imply that investigators have carte blanche to dig through our personal files -- regardless of legal justification.