US judge lets Facebook privacy class action proceed, calls company’s views ‘so wrong’

The Facebook application is seen on a phone screen August 3, 2017. (REUTERS/Thomas White/File Photo)
Updated 10 September 2019

US judge lets Facebook privacy class action proceed, calls company’s views ‘so wrong’

SAN FRANCISCO: A US federal judge on Monday ordered Facebook Inc. to face most of a nationwide lawsuit seeking damages for letting third parties such as Cambridge Analytica access users’ private data, calling the social media company’s views on privacy “so wrong.”
While dismissing some claims, US District Judge Vince Chhabria in San Francisco said users could try to hold Facebook liable under various federal and state laws for letting app developers and business partners harvest their personal data without their consent on a “widespread” basis.
He rejected Facebook’s arguments that users suffered no “tangible” harm and had no legitimate privacy interest in information they shared with friends on social media.
“Facebook’s motion to dismiss is littered with assumptions about the degree to which social media users can reasonably expect their personal information and communications to remain private,” Chhabria wrote. “Facebook’s view is so wrong.”
A Facebook spokeswoman said the company considered protecting people’s information and privacy “extremely important,” but believed its practices were consistent with its disclosures and “do not support any legal claims.”
Lesley Weaver and Derek Loeser, two of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, said in a joint statement that they were pleased with the decision, and “especially gratified that the court is respecting Facebook users’ right to privacy.”
The litigation followed a series of data privacy issues involving Menlo Park, California-based Facebook.
These included the 2015 breach that allowed Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm, to access data for an estimated 87 million Facebook users. That breach was not revealed until March 2018.
In their 414-page complaint, users said Facebook misled them into thinking they could keep control over personal data, when in fact it let thousands of “preferred” outsiders such as Airbnb, Lyft and Netflix gain access.
Chhabria faulted Facebook for treating privacy as an “all-or-nothing” proposition, where users would forfeit their privacy by sharing data even in a “limited” fashion.
He said Facebook had taken different positions elsewhere, including in a California case where it likened information kept on social media accounts to information stored on smartphones, where privacy concerns might be greater.
That position is “closer to the truth than the company’s assertions in this case,” Chhabria wrote. “Sharing information with your social media friends does not categorically eliminate your privacy interest in that information.”
The litigation covers Facebook users in the United States and United Kingdom whose information was shared with third parties without their consent since 2007.
The case is In re Facebook Inc. Consumer Privacy User Profile Litigation, US District Court, Northern District of California, No. 18-md-02843. 


Google to publish user location data to help governments tackle virus

Updated 03 April 2020

Google to publish user location data to help governments tackle virus

  • The reports on users’ movements in 131 countries will be made available on a special website and will “chart movement trends over time by geography”
  • Trends will display “a percentage point increase or decrease in visits” to locations like parks, shops, homes and places of work, not “the absolute number of visits”

PARIS: Google says it will publish users’ location data around the world from Friday to allow governments to gauge the effectiveness of social distancing measures, brought in to stem the COVID-19 pandemic.
The reports on users’ movements in 131 countries will be made available on a special website and will “chart movement trends over time by geography,” according to a post on one of Google’s blogs.
Trends will display “a percentage point increase or decrease in visits” to locations like parks, shops, homes and places of work, not “the absolute number of visits,” said the post, signed by Jen Fitzpatrick, who leads Google Maps, and the company’s chief health officer Karen DeSalvo.
For example, in France, visits to restaurants, cafes, shopping centers, museums or theme parks have plunged by 88 percent from their normal levels, the data showed.
Local shops initially saw a jump of 40 percent when confinement measures where announced, before suffering a drop of 72 percent.
Office use is possibly stronger than suspected meanwhile, as the decline in that area is a more modest 56 percent.
“We hope these reports will help support decisions about how to manage the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Google execs said.
“This information could help officials understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings.”
Like the detection of traffic jams or traffic measurement Google Maps, the new reports will use “aggregated, anonymised” data from users who have activated their location history.
No “personally identifiable information,” such as an individual’s location, contacts or movements, will be made available, the post said.
The reports will also employ a statistical technique that adds “artificial noise” to raw data, making it harder for users to be identified.
From China to Singapore to Israel, governments have ordered electronic monitoring of their citizens’ movements in an effort to limit the spread of the virus, which has infected more than a million people and killed over 50,000 worldwide.
In Europe and the United States, technology firms have begun sharing “anonymised” smartphone data to better track the outbreak.
Even privacy-loving Germany is considering using a smartphone app to help manage the spread of the disease.
But activists say authoritarian regimes are using the coronavirus as a pretext to suppress independent speech and increase surveillance.
In liberal democracies, others fear widespread data harvesting and intrusion could bring lasting harm to privacy and digital rights.