by Mary Thorson
Many Americans are reeling over allegations that the National Security Agency has been monitoring private citizens’ telephone calls and email messages. Now a lawsuit has been filed in U.S. district court in California over allegations that Facebook accesses its users’ “private” messages for gain. The suit asserts that Facebook, without proper disclosure to and consent from users, mines data from the users’ communications, and that it sells information to data aggregators, marketers, and advertisers. The petitioners are seeking a class action suit, believing that it is likely a majority of Facebook’s 166 million users may be eligible.
Facebook is globally known as a social network through which users can openly share threads of conversations online. The threads and users’ profile information are primarily accessible to the public on Facebook, but can be limited by the originator’s designation of of who can see the information (such as Facebook Friends, those people designated as a Friend by the originator). Other vehicles for communication through Facebook include what is commonly called ‘personal messaging’ or ‘private messaging.’ The tool is purported to allow a private conversation between users through the social network. Facebook does target user information as a basis for its own advertising promotions offered by third parties. It has made changes to its privacy settings frequently that have not been well-received by users.
The suit invokes the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986 and California statutes for unfair competitive practices and privacy. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs (http://it.ojp.gov/), the ECPA is a federal statute that protects wire, oral, and electronic communications while those communications are being made, are in transit, and when they are stored on computers. The Act applies to email, telephone conversations, and data stored electronically. The law’s origin was the Federal Wiretap Act of 1968; however, Congress has further expanded and updated the legislation to coincide with electronic and wireless communications developments.
Facebook has not, as of this writing, formally responded to the allegations.