Facebook Privacy: Lawsuit Charges Facebook Tracked Users Even After they Logged Off

PHOTO: A Mississippi woman has sued Facebook in federal court, accusing it of violating federal wiretap laws to track her online activity, even when she wasnt logged onto the site.
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A Mississippi woman has sued Facebook in federal court, accusing it of violating federal wiretap laws to track her online activity, even when she wasn't logged onto the site.

Facebook denies the allegations, but it has conceded in the past that it inadvertently tracked users through so-called cookies -- small files a website sends to your computer when you visit. It has said it fixed the problem before the Mississippi suit was filed.

"Leading up to September 23, 2011, Facebook tracked, collected, and stored its users' wire or electronic communications, including but not limited to portions of their Internet browsing history even when the users were not logged-in to Facebook," reads the complaint by Brooke Rutledge of Lafayette County, Miss. "Plaintiff did not give consent or otherwise authorize Facebook to intercept, track, collect, and store her wire or electronic communications, including but not limited to her Internet browsing history when not logged-in to Facebook."

It is not the first lawsuit of its kind (there are suits in Kansas, Kentucky and Louisiana), and Facebook is not the only large company to be accused of violating visitors' privacy. But the issue has spread since Faceook's Mark Zuckerberg introduced the site's new Timeline and Ticker features in September. "All your stories, all your apps, a new way to express who you are," he said at the introduction.

Facebook sent ABC News a one-line statement in response to the suit: "We believe this complaint is without merit and we will fight it vigorously"

Facebook has been promoting what it calls "frictionless sharing," so that members can opt to let their friends know automatically what music they like or films they've seen. If you choose, Facebook will tell your contacts through a regular feed of information.

But do people want Facebook to know where they go online to other sites? Two congressmen and 10 public advocacy groups have urged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate.

Reps. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Joe Barton, R-Texas, co-chairmen of the Bipartisan Privacy Caucus, wrote to the FTC: "We believe that tracking users without their knowledge or consent raises serious privacy concerns. When users log out of Facebook, they are under the impression that Facebook is no longer monitoring their activities. We believe this impression should be the reality."

Facebook said the issue was overblown. The social networking site did concede, though, that it found that three of its "cookies" -- small files a website leaves in your computer when you visit -- "inadvertently included unique identifiers when the user had logged out of Facebook," according to Andrew Noyes, Facebook's manager of public policy communications in Washington. "However, we did not store these identifiers for logged out users," he said in an email to ABC News.

EPIC, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, has said Facebook was using "supercookies" -- more troublesome than the regular cookies used by most commercial websites.

EPIC said Facebook did not take any action until an Australian blogger, Nik Cubrilovic, posted about the tracking after a year of questioning the company about it. And it said the new Timeline and Ticker may cause users accidental embarrassment, even if the company means well.

"It is difficult for users to keep up with Facebook's frequent changes and adjust their privacy settings accordingly," said David Jacobs of EPIC, "and the company has not clearly explained what it plans to do with the wealth of new user information that will be collected as a result of the new applications."

All this has become a war of words. On the one hand, there have now been countless cases in which people inadvertently shared things on social media sites that they later regretted. Would you want some future employer to see pictures from that party you went to Saturday? Do you know what settings would prevent that?

On the other hand, what's the harm to most people if a website knows your interests? That they'll show you ads tailored to your preferences?

"Some groups believe people shouldn't have the option to easily share the songs they are listening to or other content with their friends," said Facebook's Noyes. "We couldn't disagree more and have built a system that people can choose to use, and we hope people will give it a try."

 
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