For all the headlines about the National Security Agency spying on Internet users, the bright light is now turning to Facebook. Two Facebookers this week filed suit against the social networking behemoth, claiming their private messages are being read.
"Contrary to its representation, 'private' Facebook messages are systematically intercepted by the company in an effort to learn the contents of the users' communications," according to the suit, which was filed in California district court.
Matthew Campbell and Michael Hurley, the plaintiffs in the case, allege that Facebook is scanning messages and links included in those messages to search for information that would allow them “to profile the message-sender’s web activity.”
Seeking Class Action
"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," the suit said. "Thus, Facebook has positioned itself to acquire pieces of the users' profiles that are likely unavailable to other data aggregators.”
The plaintiffs are seeking a court order to certify the case as a class action suit. If they get the order, it could potentially involve as many as 166 million people who have sent or received private messages that included links over the past two years. The plaintiffs are also asking the court to ban Facebook from continuing to intercept private social media messages and are seeking as much as $10,000 in damages for each affected user.
Facebook issued a public statement saying, “We continue to believe the allegations in the lawsuit have no merit and we will defend ourselves vigorously.”
Billions in Potential Liability
We asked Greg Sterling, a principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence, for his take on the lawsuit. He told us the suit seems to have some potential for success on the face of it -- and if the class is certified it could mean billions in potential liability for Facebook.
“The facts would also appear to implicate Facebook's consent decree with the United States FTC regarding deceptive privacy practices,” Sterling said. “However, it's still premature to predict any outcome. Facebook has said it will aggressively defend against the claims.”
When the scanning of private messages was initially discovered in late 2012, the company appears to have acknowledged the practice, Sterling noted. The question, he said, is whether it's deceptively counting URLs in those messages as “likes” and then including that information in its ad-targeting algorithm as the complaint alleges.
Now, people are also pointing the finger at Google for reading messages. Sterling pointed out, “Google has been sued under the same anti-wiretapping statute and in currently in litigation over scanning the contents of Gmail messages.”