Rights groups say the US Department of Justice could violate privacy rights of people who visit anti-Trump protest site.
Two weeks ago, Lacy MacAuley was shocked when she opened her email inbox to find a message informing her that the US Department of Justice had served a warrant to Facebook to access her personal account.
“I had heard that Facebook was fighting some warrants, but I certainly didn’t give it much thought,” recalled MacAuley, a Washington, DC-based activist and prominent anti-fascist.
“I didn’t expect that email,” she told Al Jazeera by telephone.
Three warrants were served that demand Facebook provide the US government with all information from the accounts of two activists and a page affiliated with massive protests against right-wing President Donald Trump‘s inauguration on January 20.
The requested information includes the entirety of photos, videos, posts, private messages, video calls, billing information and other data between November 1, 2016, and February 9.
The other two warrants target activist Legba Carrefour and the “Disrupt J20” page, which has since been renamed “Resist This”.
MacAuley and Carrefour had been protest spokespersons leading up to the inauguration, and the Disrupt J20 page was a digital space where visitors discussed and organised demonstrations.
If successful, the warrant for Disrupt J20 could result in some 6,000 visitors to that page having their names and public and private activity on and with the page passed on to the government.
Facebook was barred from informing its users that the DOJ was seeking their online information for seven months. Government lawyers dropped the gag order in mid-September.
Rights groups have decried the warrants as a “fishing expedition” aimed at creating a database of information on activists who oppose Trump’s administration.
MacAuley says the warrants are “clearly politically motivated”, describing the government’s efforts as unnecessary invasions of their privacy.
“The government doesn’t need to see all the details of my private life,” she argued. “[US Attorney General] Jeff Sessions doesn’t need to see my family photos, information about my romantic partner and details about my surviving intimate [violence].”
Contacted by Al Jazeera, the DOJ and the US Attorney’s Office District of Columbia both declined to comment on this story.
Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union’s DC chapter (ACLU-DC) filed a motion in court asking for the warrants to be thrown out.
MacAuley, Carrefour and Emmelia Talarico, who administered the Disrupt J20 page, are being represented by the ACLU-DC.
Scott Michelman, a senior lawyer at the ACLU-DC, described the warrants as “a serious case of prosecutorial overreach”.
“This is a deep invasion of privacy and it’s unconstitutional,” he told Al Jazeera.
“It’s a fishing expedition,” Michelman said. “Perhaps what’s most chilling is that they permit these activists to be investigated by the very administration they are protesting.”
The warrants are linked to demonstrations that resulted in the mass arrest of more than 230 people who were at an anti-fascist bloc march during Trump’s inauguration.
MacAuley, Carrefour and Talarico were not among those arrested.
During that march, anti-fascists made their way through the capital’s streets. Some of them smashed windows and spray-painted graffiti on walls and vehicles.
Police clashed with them, using rubber-coated steel bullets, tear gas and pepper spray.
The majority of the more than 230 arrestees were handed a slew of felony charges, most of which are related to rioting and property damage, that could land them behind bars for upwards of 70 years.
Among those arrested were protesters, legal observers, medics and bystanders. Although many later had the charges dropped and others reached plea deals with the government, 194 are still facing the charges.
Several rights groups accused the police of using excessive force and carrying out indiscriminate arrests during the incident.
In June, the ACLU-DC filed a lawsuit against the city, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and Police Chief Peter Newsham over the police crackdown on January 20.
The suit accuses the MPD of making wrongful arrests, violating protesters’ constitutional right to free speech, denying detainees from accessing food and water and carrying out invasive body searches.
Sam Menefee-Libey, an activist with the DC Legal Posse, a group that supports the Inauguration Day defendants, argued that the warrants are part of the government’s ongoing campaign to dissuade and intimidate anti-Trump activists.
“It is a continuation of the US Attorney [Office]’s fishing expeditions, and it has a chilling effect on anti-Trump resistance,” he told Al Jazeera.
“They’re targeting people publicly associated with Disrupt J20 in the lead-up to the Inauguration Day protests … and they are just going after some of the most public figures.”
In August, the DOJ issued a warrant to the web hosting company DreamHost for information about the operations of the website www.disruptj20.org and an estimated 1.3 million visitors to that page.
If the government can lift the lid on Facebook, then we are all vulnerable.
DreamHost fought that warrant in court. In response, DOJ narrowed the warrant’s scope.
DC Superior Court Judge Robert Morin subsequently granted prosecutors’ request to collect several records from the company, including users’ emails and membership lists.
“I think that these broad electronic searches are signs of desperation as much as the grossly stacked charges are,” Menefee-Libey said.
“They’re trying to save face in light of the police brutality on Inauguration Day because they know they don’t have a case.”
For her part, MacAuley believes that the warrants are an indication that the US is “in a very dangerous place”.
“We are in danger of drifting toward fascism and authoritarianism,” she said.
“If they are targeting us now, who will they come for next? Everyone knows someone who is politically active, and everyone knows someone who has criticised the Trump administration on Facebook,” she concluded.
“If the government can lift the lid on Facebook, then we are all vulnerable.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_