Facebook is the target of a class-action lawsuit alleging that it scans private messages in order to better target advertising.
The lawsuit, submitted in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, accuses Facebook of acting “contrary to its representations” by mining those messages for data, which it allegedly shares with “advertisers, marketers, and other data aggregators.” (Hat tip to Ars Technica for the link to the court documents.) The two plaintiffs want $100 for each day of Facebook’s alleged violation or $10,000 for every class member affected, in addition to a host of statutory damages and any legal costs.
“When a user composes a Facebook message and includes a link to a third-party website (a ‘URL’), the Company scans the content of the Facebook message, follows the enclosed link, and searches for information to profile the message-sender’s web activity,” the lawsuit claims, citing “independent security researchers” for its information. “This practice is not done to facilitate the transmission of users’ communications via Facebook, but because it enables Facebook to mine user data and profit from those data by sharing them with third parties.”
The lawsuit goes on to accuse Facebook of mining every single transmission on its network, including those labeled private, in order to gather “any and all morsels of information.” It also accuses the social network of being “candid about these activities in its technical guidance for web developers.”
Facebook isn’t the only tech company accused of scanning users’ private messages for profit, of course: for years, Google has faced lawsuits over its data-collection processes with regard to Gmail and Street View. (Microsoft also scans Outlook.com users’ email in order to block spam.) But in this post-Snowden era, as consumers and businesses become more sensitive to how corporations and governments handle privacy and security issues, email scanning and similar practices are falling under a more focused microscope.
There’s survey data to back up Americans’ interest in privacy: a September survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project indicated that 86 percent of Internet users had attempted to cover their tracks online, and 55 percent have done something to avoid observation by a particular company, organization or government.
Tech companies need to walk something of a tightrope when it comes to balancing out their need for profit (via selling data to third parties) with users’ desire for privacy. Facebook claims this latest lawsuit is without merit; but ultimately a court could decide whether or not that’s actually the case.