Monday, October 25, 2010

Court compels production of social networking user names, logins, and passwords, and dispels any notions of personal privacy

As I’ve recently discussed (Discovey of Social Networks in Employment Disputes and More on the Lack of Privacy in Social Media), social networking profiles and posts have become fertile ground for the formal discovery of information about litigants. Last month, one Pennsylvania trial court took this discovery one step further, and ordered the production of a plaintiff’s social networking user names and passwords.

In McMillen v. Hummingbird Speedway, Inc. (Pa. Ct. of Common Pleas 9/9/10), the plaintiff filed suit to recover damages for substatial injuries he allegedly sustained during a stock car race. The defendant asked in discovery for the names of any social networking sites to which the plaintiff belonged, along with users names, logins, passwords. The plaintiff objected, claiming that his Facebook and MySpace user names and login information were confidential. The trial court disagreed, and ordered the production: “Where there is an indication that a person’s social network sites contain information relevant to the prosecution or defense of a lawsuit, … access to those sites should be freely granted.” It relied, in part, on Facebook’s terms and conditions, which the court concluded dispelled any notion that information one posts on Facebook is private:

Yet reading their terms and privacy policies should dispel any notion that information one chooses to share, even if only with one friend, will not be disclosed to anybody else…. Facebook users are thus put on notice that regardless of their subjective intentions when sharing information, their communications could nonetheless be disseminated by the friends with whom they share it, or even by Facebook at its discretion. Implicit in those disclaimers, moreover, is that whomever else a user may or may not share certain information with, Facebook’s operators have access to every post….

The court also found that the relevancy of social networking information outweighed the potential of harm from the disclosure of that information.

Furthermore, whatever relational harm may be realized by social network computer site users is undoubtedly outweighed by the benefit of correctly disposing of litigation. As a general matter, a user knows that even if he attempts to communicate privately, his posts may be shared with strangers as a result of his friends’ selected privacy settings. The Court thus sees little or no detriment to allowing that other strangers, i.e., litigants, may become privy to those communications through discovery….

Millions of people join Facebook, MySpace, and other social network sites, and as various news accounts have attested, more than a few use those sites indiscreetly…. When they do and their indiscretions are pertinent to issues raised in a lawsuit in which they have been named, the search for truth should prevail to bright to light relevant information that may not otherwise have been known.

In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Walter Kirn made the following observation about the intersection between social networking and the loss of personal privacy:

As the Internet proves every day, it isn’t some stern and monolithic Big Brother that we have to reckon with as we go about our daily lives, it’s a vast cohort of prankish Little Brothers equipped with devices that Orwell, writing 60 years ago, never dreamed of and who are loyal to no organized authority. The invasion of privacy—of others’ privacy but also our own, as we turn our lenses on ourselves in the quest for attention by any means—has been democratized.

As McMillen illustrates, by choosing to sacrifice our personal privacy through social interactions on social websites, we are also choosing to sacrifice our right to protect those interactions from discovery. 

[Hat tip: Delaware Employment Law Blog]

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