FBI Subpoenas for Facebook and Instagram Account Data
If the FBI has issued a subpoena to obtain access to your Facebook or Instagram account data, you could be under investigation for a broad range of federal offenses. In order to protect yourself, you will need to engage federal defense counsel promptly.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigates allegations of federal crimes through a variety of different means. Increasingly, it has been focusing its investigative efforts with respect to many crimes online, and in particular on social media. This includes issuing subpoenas to Facebook, Inc. (which owns both Facebook and Instagram) in order to obtain access to users’ account data.
When the FBI issues a subpoena to Facebook, Inc., the company will comply; and, currently, it has a policy of notifying the affected Facebook or Instagram account holder after the fact. In other words, by the time you learn that the FBI has subpoenaed your account information, that information has already been delivered. Whether and to what extent this means that the FBI will act on the information depends on the other circumstances surrounding the investigation. However, you cannot afford to take chances.
Federal Defense Counsel for FBI Investigations
At Oberheiden P.C., we provide defense representation for individuals facing FBI investigations nationwide. Our lawyers include career defense attorneys and former federal prosecutors with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Unlike other law firms, we do not hire junior attorneys to work on our clients’ cases. We also have investigators and federal defense consultants who are not lawyers, but who are former agents with the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies. If you are being targeted by the FBI, the advice of a former Special Agent or Supervisory Special Agent can be invaluable as you fight to avoid federal prosecution.
Our practice encompasses all federal criminal matters, and we have deep experience representing individuals and businesses in FBI and other federal law enforcement agency investigations. If the FBI is looking into your Facebook or Instagram account data, we can help you, but it is important that you contact us right away.
Facebook’s and Instagram’s Policies on Compliance with Federal Law Enforcement Efforts
Facebook and Instagram both have published policies regarding cooperation with FBI and other federal law enforcement agency investigations. The social media platforms’ policies are largely similar, and they both make clear that Facebook, Inc. will comply with law enforcement requests for account information in appropriate cases.
Specifically, Facebook, Inc. will provide Facebook and Instagram account data to the FBI and other agencies pursuant to three types of requests: (i) subpoenas, (ii) court orders, and (iii) search warrants. As quoted from Facebook’s Information for Law Enforcement Authorities:
- Subpoenas – “A valid subpoena issued in connection with an official criminal investigation is required to compel the disclosure of basic subscriber records (defined in 18 U.S.C. Section 2703(c)(2)), which may include: name, length of service, credit card information, email address(es), and a recent login/logout IP address(es), if available.”
- Court Orders – “A court order issued under 18 U.S.C. Section 2703(d) is required to compel the disclosure of certain records or other information pertaining to the account, not including contents of communications, which may include message headers and IP addresses, in addition to the basic subscriber records identified above.”
- Search Warrants – “A search warrant issued under the procedures described in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure or equivalent state warrant procedures upon a showing of probable cause is required to compel the disclosure of the stored contents of any account, which may include messages, photos, videos, timeline posts, and location information.”
When served with a valid subpoena, court order, or search warrant, Facebook, Inc. will comply and disclose the requested Facebook or Instagram account data without advance notice to the user. Crucially, while this is one source of information in support of federal law enforcement inquiries, the simple fact that the FBI is seeking access to Facebook or Instagram account data generally means that the agency has already obtained information from other sources as well.
Federal Offenses Targeted with FBI Subpoenas and Search Warrants to Facebook and Instagram
While state police typically review Facebook and Instagram users’ posts for evidence they can use to make arrests for DUI, marijuana offenses, theft, and other petty crimes, FBI investigations target federal offenses that are far more severe. These offenses carry the potential for substantial fines and multiple years (if not multiple decades) of federal incarceration; and, for business owners, licensed professionals, and certain other individuals, simply facing charges can have enormous implications.
Examples of the types of crimes the FBI investigates through the issuance of subpoenas and search warrants for Facebook and Instagram account data include:
Threats to national security are met with swift and aggressive action by the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies. The federal government classifies numerous different types of activities and transactions as national security threats, and the FBI uses social media subpoenas and search warrants to obtain information about U.S. citizens and foreign nationals who appear to present cybersecurity risks and who appear to be involved in other activities and transactions with national security implications.
Combatting terrorism has remained atop the federal government’s list of priorities since September 11, 2001. Domestic and international terrorist organizations have been known to recruit members and organize attacks through social media, and this has made Facebook and Instagram subpoenas and search warrants key tools in the nation’s fight against terroristic threats.
Human trafficking and drug trafficking are also serious federal crimes that are often perpetrated through the use of social media. In addition to uncovering trafficking operations, the FBI can use IP addresses and other account information to locate individuals suspected of engaging in illegal trafficking that crosses state lines.
The creation, distribution, and viewing of child pornography are all serious federal crimes. In many cases, the FBI targets individuals suspected of child pornography crimes by tracking their activity on social media. If you have shared pornographic images on a private account, the FBI can use a search warrant to gain access to your posts. Even if you have not shared pornographic images on Facebook or Instagram, the FBI could still use your account information to gather the evidence needed to prosecute in federal court.
FAQs: FBI Subpoenas for Facebook and Instagram Account Data
Q: Facebook or Instagram sent me an email stating that it responded to “valid legal process” from the FBI. What should I do?
If you have received an email regarding “valid legal process” seeking information about your Facebook or Instagram account, this most likely means that Facebook, Inc. received a subpoena from the FBI. However, the email could also be in reference to a court order or search warrant. In any case, you need to take your situation very seriously, and you should speak with a federal defense lawyer promptly.
Q: The email says I should contact the FBI directly if I have questions. Is this true?
What this really means is that you should not respond to the email, because Facebook, Inc. is not going to provide you with any additional information about the FBI’s inquiry. Rather than contacting the FBI directly, we strongly recommend that you hire an attorney to contact the FBI on your behalf. When dealing with the FBI, you need to be extremely careful about everything you say and do, and you do not want to unwittingly give federal agents additional information they can use to further their investigation.
Q: Can I (and should I) delete my Facebook and Instagram accounts?
Facebook’s Information for Law Enforcement Authorities states, “We will take steps to preserve account records in connection with official criminal investigations for 90 days pending our receipt of formal legal process.” In other words, even if you try to delete your account, your account information has likely already been preserved. Trying to delete your account could also raise questions about why you thought this was necessary. Before you do anything that could jeopardize your defense, you need to discuss your situation with an experienced federal defense attorney.
Q: What happens if the FBI finds incriminating information in my Facebook or Instagram account data?
If the FBI finds incriminating information in your Facebook or Instagram account data, prosecutors at the DOJ could use this evidence to seek an indictment in federal district court. If you are indicted, your case will be scheduled for trial, and it will go to trial unless you negotiate a plea deal or you are able to get your charges dismissed before your court date arrives. However, with a strategic defense, you may also be able to resolve the investigation without charges being filed, and this is a result we have been able to achieve for the majority of our clients.
Speak with a Federal Defense Lawyer at Oberheiden P.C. for Free
Has the FBI subpoenaed your Facebook or Instagram account data? If so, we encourage you to contact us immediately. To speak with a senior federal defense lawyer at Oberheiden P.C. in confidence, call 888-680-1745 or request a free consultation online now.