Tech lawsuits: Blackberry vs. Ryan Seacrest, and Facebook’s “private message”

Credit: Brian Turner

Credit: Brian Turner

Facebook and Typo Products, a Los Angeles start-up backed by American Idol host Ryan Seacrest, would probably have preferred not to begin 2014 facing lawsuits. No such luck. Once again, Facebook is being sued for invasion of privacy – this time for scanning private message content for links and, the claimants say, providing that information to advertisers. Seacrest’s Typo Products is being accused of illegally copying technology developed by Blackberry for its not-yet-released iPhone keyboards. If you’re worried about Facebook reading your private messages – or just in the market for an iPhone keyboard – read on.

Blackberry vs. Seacrest

It’s no secret that Blackberry has been falling behind in the smart phone wars. The company lost $4.4 billion in its recent quarter. But one of the things that made it a leader before competition from the iPhone knocked it off its throne was its physical keyboard. As the company moves forward, it has been developing phones with the more popular touch-screen keyboard, but it still sells devices with physical keyboards.

Typo Products’ slip-on keyboard for the iPhone 5 and 5s – the Typo keyboard, designed to help users make fewer typos – looks awfully similar to proprietary technology, Blackberry claims. The keyboard is designed to fit over an iPhone like an external case. Steve Zipperstein, general counsel for Blackberry, said the case was “blatant infringement,” according to a quote in “Blackberry sues Ryan Seacrest startup Typo” by Julianne Pepitone in CNN Money, January 3, 2014. Zipperstein continued, “We are flattered by the desire to graft our keyboard onto other smartphones, but we will not tolerate such activity without fair compensation for using our intellectual property and our technological innovations.”

Seacrest and representatives from Typo have not provided comments on the situation. The keyboard is slated to be released later this month (unless the Blackberry suit delays it), but the company has been taking preorders since December.

Facebook vs. private message privacy

In a new class action lawsuit against Facebook, users Michael Hurley and Matthew Campbell allege the social network “has systematically violated consumers’ privacy by reading its users’ personal, private Facebook messages without their consent,” according to Alexis Kleinman of the Huffington Post in her January 3, 2014 article, “Facebook accused of reading private messages, selling data.” According to the suit, Facebook mines private messages for data, including clicking on any links sent and, if the linked site has a Facebook page, counting that link-sharing as a “like.” Hurley and Campbell are requesting $100 a day during the term of the violation, or $10,000 for each member of the class action suit.

The idea that Facebook has been scanning private messages is not new: a reporter for the Wall Street Journal wrote about it back in 2012 – including the “like” issue. Facebook acknowledges some of the scanning: they scan messages in order to filter out spam and phishing, the company reported, claiming to Kleinman that they had not exposed private information, and that “The complaint is without merit and we will defend ourselves vigorously.”

But is Facebook’s message scanning necessarily a bad thing? Blogger Graham Cluley, who covers computer security news on his eponymous site, defended Facebook’s practice – while stating that Facebook definitely needed to make its users aware of its policies. In “Why Facebook is right to scan ‘private’ messages,” posted January 3, 2014, Cluley stated, “I don’t see anything necessarily wrong in principle with online services automatically scanning messages between individuals, and examining the links that they are sharing. Indeed, if Facebook’s security team didn’t have such systems in place I would believe them to be disturbingly lax in their duty of care for users. After all, if you didn’t properly scan and check links there’s a very real risk that spam, scams, phishing attacks, and malicious URLs designed to infect recipients’ computers with malware could run rife.”

No one is addressing the concern that Facebook’s practice of tallying “likes” by message links could inflate Facebook Pages that people are outraged about. So if you find a highly controversial website that you have to share with a friend to share how upset you are – be aware that, by sharing it through Facebook, you may be awarding it a “like.”

If you want your private messages to stay private, it might be best to keep them off Facebook. But don’t take that conversation to Gmail – Google has also been sued for message scanning practices.

Are you concerned about Internet privacy? Tell us in the comments.

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