Is the future a trade between convenience and privacy?

This TechCrunch piece talks about how (predictably) Google wants to build the “ultimate personal assistant.” With Google’s collecting user preferences cross-platform and applying algorithms to ascertain intentions, getting around in the world, purchasing things, and interacting with others could get a lot easier.

But at what cost? The success of any platform that becomes a personal assistant in the cloud would depend entirely on the collection of vast amounts of information about the individual. And since Google makes its fortunes on advertising, there is no reason to be confident that the information gathered will not be put to uses other than adding conveniences to the user’s life. Simply stated, the platform is privacy-destroying.

What if one wants to opt-out of this utopically convenient future? Might such a person be unfairly disadvantaged by, for example, choosing to undertake tasks the “old fashioned” way, unassisted by the privacy eviscerating tools? This points to larger questions about augmented reality. As a society, will we implement regulations to level the playing field among those who are not augmented versus those who are? Questions of social justice in the future may take a different tone.

Guy faces lawsuit for using another man’s Facebook pics to send sexually explicit communications to undercover cops

Defendant emailed three pictures, thinking he was communicating with two 14-year-old girls. But he was actually communicating with a police detective. And the pictures were not of defendant, but of plaintiff — a cop in a neighboring community. The pictures were not sexually explicit, but the accompanying communications were. Defendant had copied them from plaintiff’s Facebook page.

Plaintiff and his wife sued defendant under a number of tort theories. Defendant moved to dismiss plaintiffs’ claims for false light publicity and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The court denied the motion.

It found that the false light in which defendant placed plaintiff through his conduct would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and that defendant had knowledge of or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the identity of the person in the photo, and the false light into which the plaintiff would be placed.

As for the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, the court found that: (1) defendant intended to inflict emotional distress or that he knew or should have known that emotional distress was the likely result of his conduct; (2) that the conduct was extreme and outrageous; (3) that the conduct was the cause of plaintiff’s distress; and (4) that the emotional distress sustained by the plaintiff was severe.

Defendant argued that his conduct was not extreme and outrageous. The court addressed that argument by noting that:

[Defendant] cannot do that with a straight face. The test is whether “the recitation of the facts to an average member of the community would arouse his resentment against the actor and lead him to exclaim, Outrageous!” . . . This is such a case.

Plaintiff’s wife’s intentional infliction of emotional distress claim survived as well. This was not, as defendant argued, an allegation of bystander emotional distress, such as that of a witness to an automobile accident. Defendant’s conduct implied that plaintiff was a sexual predator. This would naturally reflect on his spouse and cause her great personal embarrassment and natural concern for her own personal health quite apart from the distress she may have experienced from observing her husband’s own travail.

Dzamko v. Dossantos, 2013 WL 5969531 (Conn.Super. October 23, 2013)

Can the government violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act?

Short answer: Pretty much no.

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is found at 18 U.S.C. 1030. Subpart (f) reads as follows:

This section [i.e., the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act] does not prohibit any lawfully authorized investigative, protective, or intelligence activity of a law enforcement agency of the United States, a State, or a political subdivision of a State, or of an intelligence agency of the United States.

The recent controversy over whether the FBI and/or the NSA is behind the recent Tor anonymity compromising brings this question up. So we can cut right to the question of whether that conduct is outside this exception to the CFAA, in that it is not a “lawfully authorized” law enforcement activity. Given the nuance and complexity of these issues, we should not expect easy answers.

Can an LLC member violate the Stored Communications Act by accessing other members’ email?

Yes.

Two members of an LLC sued another member and the company’s manager of information services alleging violation of the Stored Communications Act, 28 U.S.C. 2701 et seq. Defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The court denied the motion.

Plaintiffs alleged that the LLC’s operating agreement required “Company decisions” to be made based on four of the five members voting in favor. The company had no policy in place authorizing the search and review of employees’ email messages, nor did it inform employees that their email may be accessed. Plaintiffs did not consent to their emails being searched and reviewed.

In connection with a dispute among the LLC members, one of them allegedly (in cooperation with the manager of information services) accessed the company’s email server using administrative credentials. She allegedly performed over 2,000 searches, retrieving other members’ communications of a personal nature, as well as communications with those members’ legal counsel.

Defendants moved to dismiss under 12(b)(6), arguing that plaintiffs could not show the access was unauthorized. Defendants argued that there was no electronic trespass, as the access was accomplished simply by company procedure.

The court rejected defendants’ arguments, finding that plaintiffs had sufficiently alleged an SCA violation, since plaintiffs had not consented to the access, and because no policy existed permitting an individual to search and review emails of members or employees absent the four-fifths approval required by the operating agreement.

Joseph v. Carnes, 2013 WL 2112217 (N.D.Ill. May 14, 2013)

Email privacy is weak even with court oversight

Huntington Ingalls Inc. v. Doe, 2012 WL 5897483 (N.D. Cal. November 21, 2012)

A federal court in California has allowed a party to subpoena Google to learn the identity of a Gmail account owner, even though that owner did nothing to involve himself in the dispute.

A contractor that plaintiff hired accidentally emailed “property” belonging to plaintiff to the wrong email address. (The court’s opinion is not clear on the nature of this “property,” but we are safe in assuming it was some sort of proprietary information.) Plaintiff sent messages to the Gmail account seeking return of the property, but the unknown account owner did not respond.

Plaintiff filed suit in federal court against the anonymous account holder (John Doe) seeking declaratory and injunctive relief (i.e., to get the property back). Since plaintiff did not know Doe’s identity, it sought expedited discovery so that it could subpoena Google for the identifying information.

email

The court granted the motion for leave to send the subpoenas. It found that:

  • without the subpoena, plaintiff would have no other way to obtain “this most basic information”
  • the subpoena was the exclusive means available to plaintiff to protect its property interest
  • plaintiff’s proposed procedure guarded Doe’s due process rights by requiring Google to give Doe notice of the subpoena and an opportunity to object

The court’s opinion shows how any privacy interest in one’s email account information is tenuous at best. In this situation, the target of the unmasking efforts was, as they say, minding his own business, not doing anything to inject himself into any dispute.

Moreover, unlike many previous cases in which courts have required the party seeking discovery of an anonymous party’s identity to put forth facts showing it has a good case, there was no claim here that Doe did anything wrong. Instead, it was the sender’s mistake. One could find it unsettling to know that other peoples’ errors could cause a court to order his or her identity to be publicly revealed.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Bart Heird under this Creative Commons license.

Trial court erred in ordering defendant to turn over his iPhone in ediscovery dispute

AllianceBernstein L.P. v. Atha, — N.Y.S.2d —, 2012 WL 5519060 (N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept., November 15, 2012)

Plaintiff sued its former employee for breach of contract alleging he took client contact information on his iPhone when he left the job. The trial court ordered defendant to turn the iPhone over to plaintiff’s counsel so plaintiff could obtain the allegedly retained information.

Defendant sought review of the discovery order. On appeal, the court reversed and remanded.

The appellate court found that the lower court’s order that defendant turn over his iPhone was beyond the scope of plaintiff’s request and was too broad for the needs of the case. Ordering production of defendant’s iPhone (which, the court observed, has built-in applications and internet access) “was tantamount to ordering the production of his computer.” The iPhone would disclose irrelevant information that might include privileged communications or confidential information.

So the court ordered that the phone and a record of the device’s contents be delivered to the court for an in camera review to determine what, if any information contained on the phone was responsive to plaintiff’s discovery request.

Court won’t ban Gawker from posting Hulk Hogan sex tape

Bollea v. Gawker Media, LLC, 2012 WL 5509624 (M.D.Fla. November 14, 2012)

A few years ago someone surreptitiously filmed Hulk Hogan cavorting in bed with a woman not his wife. Gawker got a copy through an anonymous source and posted a minute of excerpts on gawker.com. (I’m not linking to it but it’s easily accessible. Just be warned, it’s extremely NSFW.)

Hulk sued in federal court alleging various invasion of privacy claims. He sought a preliminary injunction against Gawker continuing to make the video available. The court denied the motion, finding such an injunction to be an unconstitutional prior restraint on Gawker’s free speech right.

Gawker conceded that Hulk had a right of privacy in the contents of the tape, but argued that Gawker’s First Amendment rights outweighed the privacy interest.

The court found that Hulk failed to satisfy his heavy burden to overcome the presumption that a preliminary injunction would be an unconstitutional prior restraint under the First Amendment. Hulk’s public persona, including the publicity he and his family derived from his reality show, his own book describing an affair he had during his marriage, prior reports by other parties of the existence and content of the tape, and Hulk’s own public discussion of issues relating to his marriage, sex life, and the tape all demonstrated, in the court’s view, that the tape was a subject of general interest and concern to the community.

And he failed to show that he would suffer irreparable harm from the publication. The court’s decision on this point was based in part on the fact that mere embarassment was not enough to satisfy the irreparable harm standard. Moreover, the court found this to be a case where the “cat is out of the bag,” so it was not apparent that a preliminary injunction would do anything to help.

Court orders in camera review of injured plaintiff’s Facebook content

Richards v. Hertz Corp., — N.Y.S.2d —, 2012 WL 5503841 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept. November 14, 2012)

Plaintiff sued defendant for personal injury. Defendant saw a photo plaintiff had publicly posted on Facebook of herself skiing. When defendant requested plaintiff to turn over the rest of her Facebook content (presumably to find other like-pictures which would undermine plaintiff’s case), plaintiff sought a protective order. The trial court granted the motion for protective order, but required plaintiff to turn over every photo she had posted to Facebook of herself engaged in a “sporting activity”.

woman skiing

Defendants appealed the entry of the protective order. On review, the appellate court reversed and remanded, finding that defendants had made a showing that at least some of the discovery sought would result in the disclosure of relevant or potentially relevant evidence.

But due to the “likely presence” of private and irrelevant information in plaintiff’s account, the court ordered the information be turned over to the judge for an in camera review prior to disclosure to defendants.

Whether the plaintiff effectively preserved her Facebook account information may be an issue here. The facts go back to 2009. One is left to wonder whether and to what extent plaintiff has not gone back and deleted information from her account which would bear on the nature and extent of her injuries. It goes to show that social media discovery disputes can take on a number of nuances.

Photo courtesy Flickr user decafinata under this Creative Commons license.

Class action against Path faces uphill climb

Hernandez v. Path, Inc., 2012 WL 5194120 (N.D.Cal. October 19, 2012)

uphill path

Earlier this year plaintiff filed a class action lawsuit against photo app provider Path, alleging ten claims relating to Path’s alleged surreptitious collecting of mobile device address books and installation of tracking software. Path moved to dismiss the lawsuit for lack of standing and for failure to state a claim. The court held that plaintiff had standing to pursue the case, but dismissed some of the claims.

Standing

The court found that alleged depletion of “two to three seconds of battery capacity” was de minimus and thus not sufficient to support the injury-in-fact plaintiff was required to show. Citing to the fairly recent case of Krottner v. Starbucks, the court found that the hypothetical threat of future harm due to a security risk to plaintiff’s personal information was insufficient to confer standing. The only basis on which the court found there to be a sufficient claim of injury to support standing was the (hard to believe) claim by plaintiff that he would have to spend $12,500 to pay a professional to remove the Path app and related data from his phone.

The Dismissed Claims

The court dismissed for failure to state a claim (with leave to amend) plaintiff’s claims under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), Stored Communications Act (SCA), California wiretapping statute, state common law privacy, conversion and trespass.

ECPA and California Wiretapping Statute Claim. The court dismissed the ECPA and California Wiretapping Statute claims, finding that the complaint did not allege that Path intercepted any communication contemporaneous with its transmission. At best (from plaintiff’s perspective), it appears that Path gathered information on social networking sites after it was transmitted. And the uploading of the address books does not appear to have qualified as a communication under these statutes.

SCA Claim. The SCA claim failed “on multiple fronts.” Plaintiff was not a provider of electronic communication services and his iPhone was not a facility through which such service was provided. So Path’s alleged access did not come within the prohibition of the SCA. Moreover, the address books were not communications to which the SCA applied, because they were not in “electronic storage” as defined by the SCA, namely, being in temporary, intermediate storage incidental to their electronic transmission. (We see a similar issue in the recent Jennings case from South Carolina.)

State Common Law Privacy. This claim would have required plaintiff to show (1) public disclosure (2) of private facts (3) which would be offensive and objectionable to the reasonable person and (4) which is not of legitimate public concern. The court found there was no public disclosure, only Path’s storage of data on its servers.

Conversion. Under California law, to be successful on a claim of conversion, plaintiff would have had to plead and prove “ownership or right to possession of property, wrongful disposition of the property right and damages.” The court dismissed this claim because plaintiff pled only that Path copied the data, not dispossessing him of it. (As an aside, it’s this very point that underscores my common admonition to copyright maximalists that infringement is not “theft,” because theft involves dispossession. End of digression.)

Trespass. The California common law action of trespass in the computer context requires a plaintiff to show that (1) defendant intentionally and without authorization interfered with plaintiff’s possessory interest in a computer system; and (2) defendant’s unauthorized use proximately resulted in damage to plaintiff. The tort “does not encompass … an electronic communication that neither damages the recipient computer system nor impairs its functioning.” Intel v. Hamidi, 30 Cal.4th 1342 (Cal. 2003). In this case, plaintiff did not allege that the functioning of his mobile device was significantly impaired to the degree that would enable him to plead the elements of a trespass. The court found that any depletion of his mobile device’s finite resources was a de minimis injury. (See the standing analysis above.)

The Remaining Claims

The claims for violations of the California Computer Crime Law, Californa’s Unfair Competition Law (Section 17200), negligence and unjust enrichment remain in the case.

California Computer Crime Law. Based on the limited briefing, the court could not conclude as a matter of law whether Path’s alleged conduct fell outside this statute. The question remains whether providing the app which plaintiff voluntarily downloaded and installed on his iPhone provided undisclosed software code that surreptitiously transferred plaintiff’s data.

Californa’s Unfair Competition Law. This statute prohibits “any unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business act or practice.” The court found that the conduct alleged in the complaint, if true, constituted an unlawful or unfair act or practice within the meaning of the statute. It found that plaintiff had failed to allege any fraudulent practice, but since plaintiff met the first two prongs (unlawfulness and unfairness), the claim survived.

Negligence. Plaintiff alleged that Path owed a duty to plaintiff to protect his personal information and data property and take reasonable steps to protect him from the wrongful taking of such information and the wrongful invasion of privacy. Path allegedly breached this duty by, among other things, accessing and uploading data from plaintiff’s phone, storing that data in an unsecure manner, and transmitting the data to third parties. Path relied on In re iPhone Application Litigation to argue it had no duty to plaintiff. In that decision, Judge Koh held that plaintiffs had not yet adequately pled or identified a legal duty on the part of Apple to protect users’ personal information from third-party app developers. This case was different because Path was a third party developer. Despite the existence of a duty, plaintiff’s claims of damages (here’s the $12,500 repair bill issue again) will likely face substantial challenges as the case progresses.

Unjust Enrichment. Path argued that unjust enrichment was not a cause of action under California law. The court cited to cases suggesting that California law does indeed recognize such a claim and kept in in this case.

Photo credit Flickr user stormwarning under this Creative Commons license.

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