Meta may delete data from test accounts that found sexual material served to minors, New Mexico AG warns in filing


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In this photo illustration the Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp icon is seen displayed on smartphone screen in this illustration photo taken in Poland on February 19, 2020.

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The New Mexico Attorney General’s office has accused Meta of shutting down the accounts it used to investigate alleged child sexual abuse on Facebook and Instagram, according to a motion it filed Tuesday in the lawsuit it brought against the tech giant last week.

The Attorney General is asking a judge to order Meta not to delete any information or data associated with the test accounts, after Meta allegedly said it would retain only information it deemed “relevant” to the claims.

New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez accused Meta in the lawsuit of creating a “breeding ground” for child predators on Facebook and Instagram, including by exposing young users to sexual content and making it possible for adult users to contact children they don’t know.

As part of its investigation, the attorney general’s office created several sample Instagram accounts registered to minors as young as 12 years old. Those accounts were able to search for and access explicit “sexual or self-harm content,” including “soft-core pornography,” the complaint states.

Investigators also identified dozens of accounts sharing sexualized images of children, including photos of young girls in lingerie and images suggesting that children were “engaged in sexual activity,” the complaint alleges.

Meta strongly pushed back on the lawsuit’s claims. “We use sophisticated technology, hire child safety experts, report content to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and share information and tools with other companies and law enforcement, including state attorneys general, to help root out predators,” spokesperson Nkechi Nneji said in a statement last week.

Now, the state’s attorney general is concerned that Meta may delete data from its test accounts that could hinder its case, according to Tuesday’s filing.

In response to Tuesday’s filing, Meta spokesperson Andy Stone said in a statement: “We will of course preserve data consistent with our legal obligations.”

One day after the lawsuit was publicly filed, New Mexico investigators were notified that Meta had disabled their test accounts, preventing them from continuing their research and from accessing the data within those accounts, according to the filing.

Included in the notice was a warning that the accounts would be “permanently disabled.”

“While it is unclear whether “permanently disabl[ing]” an account is the functional equivalent to deleting the account, the State believes that is the case,” the filing states. “Indeed, in a California social media litigation, another technology company ‘locked’ the plaintiffs’ accounts following initiation of the action … The company confirmed in a recent court filing there that these ‘locked’ accounts were inadvertently deleted by the company’s automated processes.”

The filing adds: “The State seeks to prevent the same result here, for obvious reasons.”

The same day the accounts were disabled, the attorney general’s office says it requested confirmation from Meta that it would preserve all the data from the test accounts, as well as the other accounts mentioned in its complaint.

But lawyers for the tech giant said only that they would “take reasonable steps to identify the accounts referenced in the complaint and … preserve relevant data and information regarding those accounts,” the filing states.

The filing alleges Meta did not respond to a follow-up request for more information about what data the company would and would not deem “relevant.”

“Given Meta’s refusal to preserve ‘all data’ associated with accounts referenced in the Complaint, a court order is necessary to preserve this key evidence for trial,” the filing states.

The New Mexico lawsuit is just one example of growing scrutiny that Meta and other social media companies have faced in recent years over the impact of their platforms on young users.

Meta has also been sued by various school districts and state attorneys general in lawsuits related to youth mental health, child safety and privacy. Meta has repeatedly denied claims that it puts children at risk.

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Date de Publication : 2023-12-12 23:17:00

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