Skip to content Skip to footer

Korryn Gaines Blackout Signals Expansion of Law Enforcement’s Special Relationship With Facebook

Facebook has wide legal discretion, in blocking and removing content, and in providing data on users to law enforcement.

(Photo: Pascal Paukner)

Baltimore County police did not want Korryn Gaines in contact with her Facebook audience when they served a warrant at her home last week. So they asked the company to deactivate her account. In the moments leading up to her death from police gunfire, Facebook complied.

The deactivation of Gaines’ account cut her off from her only means of communicating with the public, leaving her 5 year-old son the only non-law enforcement witness to Gaines’s death. He was also wounded in the incident.

It also allowed police to avoid dealing with the optics of killing a black mother on live video. Though Gaines was armed, observers have been critical of police tactics. Cops fired the first shot in the fight, and the standoff originated with a dispute over traffic tickets.

Baltimore County police officials claimed they were afraid Gaines was receiving words of encouragement amid the stand-off.

Investigators, however, typically have more to gain by encouraging online disclosure — videos posted by Gaines would at the least provide officers with intelligence about her home’s layout, and a Facebook livestream, like the one that recorded the killing of Philando Castile would have also given officers real-time tactical knowledge of Gaines’ whereabouts, not to mention the whereabouts of her young child.

Castile was shot by an officer in Minnesota while complying with orders during a traffic stop. The scene was broadcast live by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynold, in which she argues with the shouting officer, while her boyfriend bleeds to death in the passenger seat. Reynolds was not even able to assist Castille in his dying moments, with the killer cop still pointing his firearm at the car. The couple’s child was in the back seat.

A spokeswoman for Baltimore County Police said it was the first “exigent” shutdown request the agency had made but predicted it would not be the last, the Baltimore Sun reported.

Facebook has wide legal discretion, due largely to users’ submission to its Terms of Service, both in blocking and removing content, and in providing archival data on users to law enforcement. The power was described by Lee Rowland of the American Civil Liberties Union as “pseudo-governmental.”

A “Law Enforcement Sensitive” Unofficial Guide to Facebook’s Law Enforcement Portal (Version 2) details the best practices and variety of legal processes for this control over personal information, and the huge variety of data available from the social media giant (Facebook also owns Instagram, where two of Gaines’ videos remain deactivated).

That data — much of it accessible to law enforcement without a warrant — can be incredibly revealing about the minutiae of users’ personal lives, and includes everything from residence history to Facial Recognition metadata automatically generated from posted photos.

The guide also notes that Facebook’s retention standard seems to vary by user and by the investigator making the request, and that it only retains about 29% of all data posted.

Most of these social media operations are still the Wild West when it comes to courtroom precedent and warrant standards. Departments have worked for years to develop relationships with online platforms and service providers alike, with the goal of developing policy keeps legislatures, and often judges, out of it.

A Chicago police officer at a law enforcement conference in Philadelphia in 2013 let slip during a panel that his department had been working with Facebook chief of security Joe Sullivan on the city’s “cyber-banging” and flash mob problems. He told panel attendees that Facebook had the capability to lock out users entirely by personal identifiers, so that at the very least they would “have to get a new computer or a new phone” to access the platform.

Facebook denied the existence of any “special relationship” at the time, claiming it responded to all Terms of Service violations requests equally. A spokesman for Facebook denied that CSO Sullivan ever intended to speak at the conference, saying they “haven’t yet been able to figure out” what caused his name to appear in the printed schedule.

Before her death, Gaines had posted hundreds of videos to her online profile, many featuring adversarial interactions with police officers. One such clip is of a recent recording of herself telling cops who pulled her over and were arresting her that they “would have to kill [her].”

The stakes have never been higher (and our need for your support has never been greater).

For over two decades, Truthout’s journalists have worked tirelessly to give our readers the news they need to understand and take action in an increasingly complex world. At a time when we should be reaching even more people, big tech has suppressed independent news in their algorithms and drastically reduced our traffic. Less traffic this year has meant a sharp decline in donations.

The fact that you’re reading this message gives us hope for Truthout’s future and the future of democracy. As we cover the news of today and look to the near and distant future we need your help to keep our journalists writing.

Please do what you can today to help us keep working for the coming months and beyond.