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US judge dismisses wiretapping accusation case against Facebook

A lawsuit accusing Facebook of using cookies to track users’ browsing activities even when logged out of the social network has been rejected by a federal court. The Judge ruled that even if it could be proved that Facebook was illegally spying on users’ activities, their data could be protected by other means and its collection does not constitute economic harm to users.

The five-and-a-half-year-long case has been brought to the federal courts before and an earlier iteration of the lawsuit was dismissed in October 2015 by the same judge.

The plaintiffs took their most recent case to the California federal court, arguing that Facebook stored cookies on their browsers which tracked when users visited other sites with “Like” buttons, which allow people to share content with Facebook. When a user visits these sites, the browser sends information to both Facebook and the server for the third-party website. This allows Facebook to gradually build up a picture of users’ browsing histories, even when they are not logged into Facebook.

In 2014, Facebook began using this web browsing data in order to target adverts to users. This is why Facebook users often see Facebook adverts for products they have looked at elsewhere online.

The plaintiffs argued that this tracking and data collection violated state and federal wiretapping and privacy laws. They stated that this breaches the Facebook promise that logging out deletes cookies and is the “single most pervasive and grave threat to data privacy today”.

However, US District Judge Edward Davila of San Jose, CA, dismissed the case, concluding that the plaintiffs did not demonstrate a “reasonable expectation” of privacy and that browsing histories could be made private by various means, such as by browsing incognito or by installing protective plug-ins.

“Facebook’s intrusion could have been easily blocked, but Plaintiffs chose not to do so,” he wrote.

Judge Davila also stated that there was no “realistic” economic harm done by this, even if Facebook was proved to be illegally spying on their activities.

Although the browsing information may have “some degree of intrinsic value”, he argued, the plaintiffs had failed to show that “they personally lost the opportunity to sell their information or that the value of their information was somehow diminished after it was collected by Facebook”.

“The fact that a user’s web browser automatically sends the same information to both parties does not establish that one party intercepted the user’s communications with the other,” he added.

Judge Davila has concluded that the users cannot bring privacy and wiretapping claims again, but could sue Facebook for breach of contract, if they can demonstrate that these activities violates Facebook’s terms of service.

Facebook said that it was “pleased” with the federal court’s ruling.

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