- Unsealed court records show how police relied on Facebook to investigate protests in 2020.
- A warrant required Facebook to hand over a large amount of private information to six users.
- Facebook is seeing more and more requests for user information from the police, receiving 63,000 in six months.
Social media accounts can be defined as “private” and made to feel like they belong to you. But the reality is that no individual owns or controls the data they share on a platform like Facebook, and law enforcement can often access it if they choose. This is exactly what happened to several people suspected of involvement in civil unrest after police shot and killed Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 2020.
In late August of that year, protests erupted in Kenosha, about 90 minutes north of Chicago, after Blake, a black man, was shot multiple times by local police during a traffic stop. Rallies, public demonstrations and general civil unrest followed for about a week, a period that included the shooting death of two black protesters in Kenosha by white teenager Kyle Rittenhouse.
In the weeks that followed, local police, state attorneys general and the Department of Justice began investigating and identifying those suspected of causing property damage.
Six people from Minnesota have been identified as suspects who allegedly drove to Kenosha, broke into a local CVS and set fire to a local bar on the night of August 24, according to a recently unsealed search warrant filed by the Bureau of US prosecutors from Wisconsin. . Most of the suspects were connected to the CVS break-in by police searching Facebook accounts for people who matched security camera footage from that night.
However, the information the police could access on their own was not enough. They were also seeking “information about protests, riots and civil unrest in the Kenosha, Wisconsin area” at the time, according to court documents.
In September 2020, the DOJ filed a search warrant for a record of all information apparently held by Facebook regarding the six suspect accounts, including those that could have been deleted. Facebook provided the information in October 2020.
More than 63,000 requests for information from US government entities
A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on the warrant or how it generally interacts with law enforcement. The company said in a report that for the first half of 2021, it received more than 63,000 requests for information from government entities in the United States. In 89% of these cases, Facebook provided information.
More than 13,000 people have been arrested in protests and unrest over the summer of 2020, which occurred across the United States following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. More than 1,400 felony cases were filed against individuals believed to have committed crimes during this period, according to a tracker maintained by The Prosecution Project.
Below is a breakdown of how law enforcement used Facebook to identify the six suspects in Kenosha, what information Facebook passed on, and how long the process took.
Search for public profiles
According to the unsealed documents, police started on their own, going through available Facebook profiles of the six suspects and comparing footage from security cameras to profile pictures posted on the social media platform. They identified four suspects by name.
The other two suspects remained unknown, but police believed they were associated with certain Facebook accounts. They also had other clues: they had arrested a 24-year-old suspect in the CVS robbery who had given the names of the other suspects.
Request for private information from Facebook
Making further progress required a warrant to obtain much more information from Facebook. Police hoped not only to identify the remaining suspects by name, but also to find out where they lived, worked, traveled and with whom they were associated, including during the unrest in Kenosha.
The DOJ was quick to seek a warrant for all private Facebook account information, seeking court approval on September 18. It was about two weeks after the disturbances in Kenosha ended. The DOJ said that by accessing suspects’ accounts, it would be able to collect more general information about the protests and anyone who may have been involved in a “conspiracy” to commit crimes, such as damage to property and arson, according to the unsealed statement. document.
The DOJ apparently requested any information that could be associated with a user’s Facebook account, including names, addresses, phone numbers, and any location tracking information. All likes, posts and comments on Feed, Messenger and Stories were requested, along with the account IDs and usernames they interacted with and full activity logs. Records of voice and video calls and all records of IP addresses and hardware used by the accounts were included in the warrant.
The police got everything they wanted
Within four weeks, Facebook had complied. The warrant was returned to a federal court in Wisconsin as “executed”, suggesting the police got everything they wanted. The contents of the requested accounts were uploaded by the company and turned over to law enforcement on October 20.
Although Facebook said it will “challenge or reject” a request for data from a government agency deemed “overbroad” or “legally deficient”, there is no record of such a conclusion in the case of the Kenosha suspects.
There have been several arrests related to the Kenosha CVS break-in. A spokesperson for the Wisconsin U.S. Attorney’s Office would not comment on whether the suspects targeted by the Facebook warrant have been charged or arrested, but said none have yet been tried or convicted of a crime. .