A post on CNET today reports that users have filed a lawsuit against social networking giant Facebook over privacy concerns. Specifically, two men named Matthew Campbell and Michael Hurley filed their suit against Facebook in California, alleging that the site is analyzing private messages containing URLs and using that data “for purposes including but not limited to data mining and user profiling”—essentially, taking that information and using it to target ads or other bits of Facebook’s “features.”

The post quotes the complaint and offers up the reasoning behind the suit:

“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 also claims that if, indeed, Facebook was monitoring and scanning private messages, that this violates the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

In response, Facebook issued a statement denying the allegations, signaling the company’s intention to face the charges in court:

“We believe the allegations are without merit and we will defend ourselves vigorously.”

I think the big distinction here, though, could come down to a matter of definition and just what users agree to when they sign up for Facebook in the first place. It’s not hard to find the site’s privacy policy, and one clause in particular would seem to spell out Facebook’s prerogatives pretty clearly:

“We receive data about you whenever you use or are running Facebook, such as when you look at another person’s timeline, send or receive a message, search for a friend or a Page, click on, view or otherwise interact with things, use a Facebook mobile app, or make purchases through Facebook.”

All of that’s kind of gross, sure, but it’s also more than a little naïve to think that by using a company’s messaging service that you won’t somehow be subject to being monitored. Sure, messages are labeled as “private,” but isn’t it pretty obvious that the privacy merely extends to other users of Facebook? Of course Facebook would know what you’re sending. Like the NSA’s sweeping collection of phone metadata, it’s doubtful that anyone is actually sitting down or reading your messages, but you can bet your sweet bippy that the company’s robots are scanning everyone’s messages for links off the site so it can know what you’re interested in and try to sell you more sunglasses or whatever.

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I wouldn’t be surprised if Facebook’s defense isn’t more than “you should’ve read the privacy policy, dummy.” Even still, I’m curious to see where this goes, if it goes anywhere at all.

  • Indeed ! Nice article. As to their use of “our” data and habits … can we not just offset the whole push to buy pushed product by just ignoring it if we want to? The argument so reminds me of early days of TV (still valid I guess) where it was TV shows that were delivering viewers to advertisements not the other way around. Since Facebook is essentially free to use, is it so odd to expect them to benefit from our use of it in all kinds of ways? It just may sound worse to hear your mail is scanned. When the bots start to have a laugh or cry at the actual context and conversations – maybe that’s when we get worried. Also, “private” as a word today is definitely shaping up to have a far different meaning than yesterday.

  • Facebook has been mining your private messages forever (and have been open about it, like you mention, check their privacy policy and things Zuck and co have stated at events). Also, look at how they rank your friends in the chat list — that’s part based on number of conversations but also based on the content.


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