Facebook Founder Zuckerberg’s Lost Privacy

facebook3.jpgFacebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has learned a lesson about privacy — it’s hard to maintain if others irresponsibly leak your personal information. From the New York Times:

Facebook tried last week to force the magazine 02138 to remove some unflattering documents about Mr. Zuckerberg from its Web site. But a federal judge turned down the company’s request for a court order to take down the material, according to the magazine’s lawyers. . . .

02138, which refers to Harvard College’s ZIP code in Cambridge, Mass., and consists primarily of articles about Harvard and Harvard alumni, published an article last week about the genesis of Facebook and the resulting lawsuit. The piece is sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ account and questions the validity of Mr. Zuckerberg’s claims.

The article relied in part on documents submitted in the lawsuit, in Federal District Court in Boston, that were ordered sealed by the judge in the case, Douglas P. Woodlock. On its Web site, 02138 posted not only the article, but also the documents, which include Mr. Zuckerberg’s handwritten application for admission to Harvard and an excerpt from an online journal he kept as a student that contains biting comments about himself and others.

Luke O’Brien, the freelance reporter who wrote the article, said that he had done nothing wrong in obtaining the documents and that neither side in the lawsuit had improperly leaked them to him. He said he had obtained the papers in mid-September from the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, which considered a part of the case, where a clerk apparently made a mistake and let him read and copy sealed documents, along with those that were still supposed to be open to the public. . . .

Some of the pages he copied were stamped “Confidential” or “Redacted.” Bom Kim, founder and editor of 02138, which is not affiliated with the university or its alumni association, said that gave him pause.

On Thursday, Facebook asked Judge Woodlock to order 02138 to strike the documents from its Web site. Lawyers for 02138 said that late Friday, the judge, in an oral ruling, turned down the request; Facebook and its lawyer refused to confirm or deny that account. Calls to the court went unanswered.

Since the documents were leaked by the court, the First Amendment bars the newspaper from being sued for publishing them. See Cox Broadcasting v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469 (1975).

The Zuckerberg incident raises an issue that I find to be occurring far too often — courts inadvertently leaking sealed and confidential documents. As businesses have discovered, after the spate of data security breaches in 2005, keeping people’s data secure is no easy task and demands training and resources. But courts, it seems, have not thought much about data security. One of the problems is that a victim of a judicial leak of information has little recourse. The First Amendment prevents stopping a newspaper or blogger or anyone who obtains the information from publicizing it. As for the court, the court clerk and officials are typically immune from liability. So if a court leaks your confidential personal information, it’s tough luck for you.

There needs to be a better incentive for courts to protect personal information. “Oops, I’m sorry” just doesn’t cut it if a court is negligent in keeping information secure.

Hat tip: Bashman

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2 Responses

  1. nervous facebook user says:

    deliciously ironic

  2. Bruce Boyden says:

    These screw-ups occur often enough, in both federal and state courts, that I always advised clients wanting to file something under seal that there was a risk that even if the motion to seal was granted, it would still wind up leaking to the press.

    I understand why courts are suspicious of too much stuff being filed under seal. However, if there is a system in place for sealing stuff, it needs to be reliable. I think in the past a lot of sloppily handled sealed files went unnoticed in the paper docket, but now they can be browsed on PACER for 8 cents a page immediately after filing.