A bunch of John Does may find themselves with some explaining to do if a California federal court sides with LinkedIn in a lawsuit filed this week. Then again, the professional networking super site may just be trying to make a point.
Miffed about the proliferation of fake profiles seemingly intended to connect to real job-seekers employers for the sake of mining their data, Mountain View, Calif.-based LinkedIn is seeking injunctive relief and damages against 10 anonymous defendants.
According to the court papers, LinkedIn believes the group members are people "employing various automated software programs" known as bots to register fake LinkedIn accounts and use a practice called "scraping," in violation of the network's terms of service, and circumventing various "technical protection barriers" employed by LinkedIn. It's also a violation of federal and California computer laws and federal copyright laws.
Undermining LinkedIn's Credibility
This behavior undermines the "integrity and effectiveness of LinkedIn's professional network," the company claims.
It's the latest salvo in the war against people who essentially encounter no resistance in using social media either for frivolous or nefarious purposes. Twitter has seen users create fake accounts in the name of celebrities or major corporations and send out damaging Tweets, while Facebook has admitted that it has thousands of fake user accounts that it says it is trying to delete. Facebook last September won a $3 million judgment against a company found by a judge to have sent more than 60,000 spam messages to Facebook members, and Craigslist also won a victory against a company it said ripped off its real estate ads.
With a more serious purpose, LinkedIn can perhaps less afford to have users who damage its business model.
Too Savvy To Be Sued?
The question is whether LinkedIn or the court can actually unmask the hackers. The company declares its intention to seek "expedited discovery" to learn their identities and reserves the right to amend the complaint.
"While a court case is one step to address this issue of fake accounts on Linked In, LinkedIn's lawsuit won't necessarily identify the scammers behind the scheme if the accused are savvy at all and cover their tracks," said Chester Wisniewski, a senior analyst at the global cybersecurity firm Sophos.
"It appears they were abusing Amazon's EC2 service, which is often abused by spammers and others," Wisniewski told us. "Most criminals are smart enough not to use their real identities and stick to using stolen credit cards to pay for the service."
LinkedIn, which claims 259 million members in 200 countries, says in the court papers it acted quickly to halt the defendants' activities by disabling the phony accounts and "implementing additional technical protection barriers." It hopes the court action will bring "permanent injunctive relief halting their unlawful conduct."
The alleged hackers could not be reached for comment.