The US Department of Justice has obtained search warrants that would allow government lawyers to access the Facebook accounts of anti-Donald Trump protesters.
The data requested includes the passwords, private messages, photos, and deleted posts of two individual activists, as well as information on 6,000 people who “liked” an anti-Trump Facebook page.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is fighting the warrants in court, described the requests as “a gross invasion of privacy”.
It has asked judges to quash or modify the three warrants, which target activists involved in DisruptJ20, a group which organised Inauguration Day protests.
The government wants the data in relation to an investigation into and prosecution of activists arrested in Washington DC as Mr Trump was sworn in as President on 20 January 2017.
It has requested information from between 2 November, a week before the presidential election, and 9 February.
“The enforcement of the warrants would chill future online communications of political activists and anyone who communicates with them, as they will learn from these searches that no Facebook privacy setting can protect them from government snooping on political and personal materials far removed from any proper law enforcement interest,” said court papers lodged by the ACLU.
The warrants would allow investigators to “comb through 90 days’ worth of personal messages concerning political activity and associations — some of which are aimed at protesting the policies of the very administration on whose behalf the government officials would be acting,” the organisation added.
One of the warrants was issued for the DisruptJ20 Facebook page and would require the disclosure of private lists of people who planned to attend political events and the names of people who liked the page or reacted to or engaged with its posts. During the three-month span of the request, about 6,000 people liked the page.
Emmelia Talarico, who ran the page, the said the warrant would also mean the government had access to her “personal passwords, security questions and answers, and credit card information”.
The other two warrants would require Facebook to disclose private messages, friend lists, status updates, comments, photos, video, search terms, and other private information about two Washington DisruptJ20 activists, Lacy MacAuley and Legba Carrefour. All “data and information that has been deleted by the user” is also covered by the request.
None of the three activists targeted have been charged with any offence in relation to Inauguration Day.
“My Facebook page contains the most private aspects of my life – and also a frightening amount of information on the people in my life,” said Ms MacAuley. “There are intimate details of my love life, family, and things the federal government just doesn’t need to see.”
“Opening up the entire contents of a personal Facebook page for review by the government is a gross invasion of privacy,” added Scott Michelman, the ACLU’s senior lawyer for Washington.
“The primary purpose of the Fourth Amendment was to prevent this type of exploratory rummaging through a person’s private information. Moreover, when law enforcement officers can comb through records concerning political organising in opposition to the very administration for which those officers work, the result is the chilling of First Amendment-protected political activity.”
Ms Talarico described the warrants as “a direct attack on DC’s grassroots organising community”.
Facebook was initially served with the warrants in February but an accompanying gag order prevented it from informing the users the government was requesting their private data.
The users targeted only learned of the warrants this month after the government dropped the gag order following a challenge by Facebook.
The ACLU said the social media company “does not object” to its request for the warrants to be quashed.
Facebook has been approached for a statement.
The Department for Justice has declined to comment on the warrants.