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Facebook sued for profiting from private message 'interception'

03 Jan 2014
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Facebook is facing yet more legal action as a result of its privacy practices, this time surrounding alleged "systematic interception" and commercial use of private messages sent between users on the site.

The case, which is being filed as a class action lawsuit in California, focuses on the ways in which Facebook makes use of links shared in its messaging system, something the claimants say contradicts the social network's promises of "private" messaging.

Claimants Matthew Campbell and Michael Hurley state that Facebook keeps a record of links being shared within its messaging platform, undermining the concept of a private experience. They claim it "enables Facebook to mine user data and profit from those data by sharing them with third parties - namely, advertisers, marketers, and other data aggregators".

The pair cite a 2013 study by Swedish security firm High-Tech Bridge, which found Facebook uses so-called "web crawlers" to study links shared in messages, the data from which is then seemingly used to build link previews and increment any Facebook 'Like' counters that feature on the page being shared. From this, the claimants extrapolate that Facebook is profiting commercially from private messaging data.

The case states that Facebook's user agreement does not make any mention of such methods. This would leave the firm in breach of the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which forbids acts such as wiretapping without court consent. Whether this act applies to internet communications made on a commercial platform remains to be seen.

Campbell and Hurley are seeking a sum of $100 for every day Facebook breached the Electronic Communications Privacy Act for each user affected. That amounts to any US user who has sent a link via a private message since the practice has been in effect, which could add up to a hefty amount.

In a statement shared with V3, Facebook said that it would defend itself "vigorously" and that the claims were "without merit".

In 2013, Google came under fire for displaying advertising based on a user's Gmail inbox. However, it rebuffed criticism by saying users should not expect complete privacy in an email service. In Facebook's case, there are no specific mentions of its use of the content of users' messages in any of its user agreements.

Class action suits against the social network have worked in the past. Facebook paid out $20m in compensation in a 2013 case relating to the use of users' images in advertisements.

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Michael Passingham
About

Michael Passingham joined V3 as a reporter in June 2013. Prior to working at V3, Michael spent time at computing magazine PC Pro. Michael covers IT skills, social media, tech startups and also produces V3's video content.

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