September 30, 2013
Several users of the LinkedIn professional networking service have sued the company alleging that it misused information contained in their e-mail contacts lists. The company denies all such claims. The dispute raises important issues of access and control over consumer information.
In the case, Perkins v. LinkedIn Corporation, (U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, 13-cv-04303), consumers allege that LinkedIn hacked into their external e-mail accounts and captured contact lists from those accounts. The plaintiffs also claim that LinkedIn sent, without authorization, e-mail messages promoting LinkedIn services to numerous people on those contact lists.
The complaint charges that LinkedIn required users to disclose to the company an external e-mail address for use as a username for the site. It asserts that LinkedIn then hacked into those external e-mail accounts to access the contacts list associated with the accounts.
In support of their claims, the plaintiffs presented a statement reportedly posted online by a LinkedIn software engineer expressly indicating that part of his job at LinkedIn involves development of software hacking systems. The plaintiffs also allege that hundreds of the people on their e-mail contacts lists have received marketing messages from LinkedIn.
LinkedIn denies all of the claims raised by the plaintiffs in this case. The company has indicated that it will vigorously contest all of the claims.
Recent revelations regarding widespread government surveillance involving digital communications and content have made individuals more sensitive to the many threats to privacy present in the online environment. This increased sensitivity is both justified and significant.
Personal information is a highly prized commodity. It is actively pursued by governments, businesses, and criminals. Individuals must remain attentive to the security of their personal information.
The conflict presented by increasing demand for access to personal information and growing consumer activism in support of protecting that information suggests that disputes similar to this LinkedIn case will dramatically increase in number. Governments and businesses should recognize that privacy is an important issue for individuals.
It is increasingly likely that individual citizens and consumers will begin to demand substantially greater respect for personal privacy from governments and businesses. As individuals begin to incorporate privacy concerns into their commercial and political decisions, companies and politicians will find it to be in their best interest to demonstrate clear and consistent respect for the privacy of personal information.