Innovation

Facebook in class-action lawsuit over alleged privacy breaches

Yolanda Redrup /

Facebook has once again found itself at the centre of a class action, with two United States users alleging the social network extracted information about them from private messages, violating privacy regulations.

The class action comes as complaints have emerged about the network’s latest Android app update, which requests permission for the site to access your personal text messages and change your Wi-Fi access.

The class-action lawsuit launched by Matthew Campbell of Arkansas and Michael Hurley of Oregon alleges the social network scanned users’ private messages for links to third-party sites and then shared that information with “advertisers, marketers and other data aggregators”.

French newsagencyAgence France Pressereported the complaint, filed on December 30 with the US District Court in Northern California, and said Facebook had “systematically violated consumers’ privacy by reading its users’ personal private Facebook messages without their consent”.

“Representing to users that the content of Facebook messages is ‘private’ creates an especially profitable opportunity for Facebook, because users who believe they are communicating on a service free from surveillance are likely to reveal facts about themselves that they would not reveal had they known the content was being monitored,” it said.

The lawsuit claims the information was then used for “purposes including but not limited to data mining and user profiling”.

The suit was filed by Campbell and Hurley on behalf of all US Facebook users.

In a statement provided to SmartCompany Facebook confirmed the class-action and a spokesperson said: “The complaint is without merit and we will defend ourselves vigorously”.

In August last year Facebook paid five social networkers $22 million to settle a lawsuit regarding targeted advertising.

The class action was filed in 2011 and alleged Facebook’s “Sponsored Stories” program shared users’ “likes” of certain advertisers with friends without paying them or allowing them to opt out.

Technology expert Paul Wallbank told SmartCompany these types of privacy issues are common to all social networking sites.

“The problems with Facebook are standard with most social media applications. They’re all doing things like this. Pretty well all of the sites want to get as much information on you as possible because that’s the value they can give to advertisers,” he says.

“To date, it hasn’t stopped people using the sites, if anything people are still jumping on board social media.”

The latest Facebook Android update also asks users to give Facebook permission to change a person’s audio setting and to modify calendar events and send emails to guests without the owner’s permission.

On Facebook’s website it provides justifications for the changes in its policy.

Wallbank says it’s up to the social networkers to determine how much information sites like Facebook can access.

“It’s really up to us to say what the limit is. If we push back, so will they. It comes down to us,” he says.

“Each year I think we reach that point and it turns out we haven’t. Eventually we will reach that point where they’ve pushed the limits too far, but I have a horrible feeling I’ll be wrong again this year. There’s too much information going into these social networks.”

Wallbank says despite the networks gaining more and more access to people’s personal information, users are using the sites in different ways.

“We’re seeing articles about Facebook dying, but it’s not dying, what’s happening is teenagers and the older demographics are using it differently and they’re being strategic about what they share,” he says.

“In the early stages of the internet and social media we don’t really understand it’s reach and how comprehensive the data is which is being collected on us… it’s similar to the motor car in its early day, we’re still learning how to drive it.”

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