Facebook sued in US for scanning private messages

20 May 2016

Facebook sued in US for scanning private messages

Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) has been hit with a class action lawsuit, which claims that the company violated federal privacy laws. The lawsuit, registered in Northern California District Court, alleges that the social network scans and logs URLS sent through the private messaging system.

It was understood that the scan was done to look for malware and instances of child pornography; however, it was also passed on to third parties for marketing purposes. The plaintiffs argue that Facebook scans these URLs for advertising purposes routinely, which violates Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) and California Invasion of Privacy Act (CIPA). On the other hand, the social network refutes this claim and states that the data does not disclose information about a specific individual and is scanned in bulk.

The company also argued that the aggregated data is used to observe trends and popularity about something and does not fish for individual messages. However, a technical analysis of the social network revealed that each URL sent to another user is saved in a database called “Titan”. The database sorts user information through date, time of message, and the user IDs of both the sender and receiver. The analysis claims that any Facebook employee can access the database and search for a user’s data. Facebook, on the other hand calls this analysis as speculative.

A similar case was brought against the social network when it was found the “Like” option count was manipulated. Facebook would increase a link’s “Like” count every time it was sent in a private message. The company eventually stopped this after the revelation. The plaintiffs argue that while this practice has stopped, URL collection is still an issue that stands.

Unfortunately, the plaintiffs are entitled to no monetary compensation. As per Facebook’s statement to The Verge, the company supports the court’s decision in not offering any monetary damages, since the feature hasn’t resulted in any harm and does not deserve a class action damages award. So in case the Plaintiffs do win the case, the social network may be forced to stop this practice and not pay a dime.

We still have to wait and see whether Facebook’s practice violates CIPA or ECPA. However, it does raise questions on networks operations. The blue social network is nothing short of a media channel now and class actions like these along with allegations of bias in trending news may tarnish the brand name. The plaintiffs will file another complaint by June 8th.



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