From Facebook to Mug Shot: How the Dearth of Social Networking Privacy Rights Revolutionized Online Government Surveillance

92 Pages Posted: 10 Mar 2011 Last revised: 17 Aug 2014

See all articles by Junichi P. Semitsu

Junichi P. Semitsu

University of San Diego School of Law

Date Written: March 9, 2011


Each month, Facebook’s half billion active users disseminate over 30 billion pieces of content. In this complex digital ecosystem, they live a parallel life that, for many, involves more frequent, fulfilling, and compelling communication than any other offline or online forum. But even though Facebook users have privacy options to control who sees what content, this Article concludes that every single one of Facebook’s 133 million active users in the United States lack a reasonable expectation of privacy from government surveillance of virtually all of their online activity.

Based on Facebook’s own interpretations of federal privacy laws, a warrant is only necessary to compel disclosure of inbox and outbox messages less than 181 days old. Everything else can be obtained with subpoenas that do not even require reasonable suspicion. Accordingly, over the last six years, government agents have worked the beat by mining the treasure trove of personal and confidential information on Facebook.

But while Facebook has been justifiably criticized for its weak and shifting privacy rules, this Article demonstrates that even if it adopted the strongest and clearest policies possible, its users would still lack reasonable expectations of privacy under federal law. First, federal courts have failed to properly adapt Fourth Amendment law to the realities of Internet architecture. Since all Facebook content has been knowingly exposed to at least one third party, the Supreme Court’s current Fourth Amendment jurisprudence does not clearly stop investigators from being allowed carte blanche to fish through the entire site for incriminating evidence. Second, Congress has failed to meaningfully revise the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) for over a quarter century. Even if the ECPA were amended to cover all Facebook content, its lack of a suppression remedy would be one of several things that would keep Facebook a permanent open book. Thus, even when the government lacks reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and the user opts for the strictest privacy controls, Facebook users still cannot expect federal law to stop their private content and communications from being used against them.

This Article seeks to bring attention to this problem and rectify it. It examines Facebook’s architecture, reveals the ways in which government agencies have investigated crimes on social networking sites, and analyzes how courts have interpreted the Fourth Amendment and the ECPA. The Article concludes with an urgent proposal to revise the ECPA and reinterpret Katz before the Facebook generation accepts the Hobson’s choice it currently faces: either live life off the grid or accept that using modern communications technologies means the possibility of unwarranted government surveillance.

Keywords: Facebook, social networking, ECPA, privacy, civil liberties, criminal investigations, Fourth Amendment, search, seizure, internet, cyberspace

JEL Classification: K00

Suggested Citation

Semitsu, Junichi P., From Facebook to Mug Shot: How the Dearth of Social Networking Privacy Rights Revolutionized Online Government Surveillance (March 9, 2011). Pace Law Review, Vol. 31, No. 1, 2011, Available at SSRN:

Junichi P. Semitsu (Contact Author)

University of San Diego School of Law ( email )

5998 Alcala Park
San Diego, CA 92110-2492
United States

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