Lawsuit Looms for “Infidelity Dating” Site Ashley Madison

A class action lawsuit worth a total of C$760 million (£367 million or US$576 million) is being brought against infidelity dating website Ashley Madison. The lawsuit stems from recent high-profile data leaks, in which the personal information of many of the site’s users was made available on the “dark web.”

Ashley Madison is a highly controversial dating website, which specifically targets married users who are looking for affairs. The controversy has not been lessened by its marketing messages, which are anything but coy about the nature of the site. It uses the slogan “Life is short, have an affair,” and has aired television adverts which featured a number of men cheerfully singing the words “I’m looking for someone other than my wife.” The company’s adverts have also been criticised on other grounds, such as denigrating women, and in some cases have been pulled as a result of high volumes of complaints.

Ashley MadisonDespite the moral question mark that many see hanging over the nature of the site, it has proved very successful across the world. It has 37 million users from over 50 countries, including over a million in the UK.

It was the controversy surrounding the site that led it to become the target of Impact Team, a group of hackers. This group obtained data about the site’s users including names, home addresses, email addresses, and message histories from the site’s private messaging feature. They then threatened that, if the site was not taken down, they would reveal this information and publicly expose the infidelity of the site’s users. The site remained operational, and the data was leaked online.

The lawsuit is being brought against the site’s operating companies, Avid Media and Avid Dating Life, by Canadian law firms Sutts, Strosberg LLP and Charney Lawyers. The firms claim to be bringing legal action against Ashley Madison on behalf of “all Canadians” who were caught up in the data leaks.

In a statement, the two forms said they had been approached by “numerous former users of AshleyMadison.com” with enquiries about their rights to privacy under Canadian law.

“They are outraged,” the statement continues, “that AshleyMadison.com failed to protect its users’ information. In many cases, the users paid an additional fee for the website to remove all of their user data, only to discover that the information was left intact and exposed.”

While social media has seen a lot of public support for the data leak, others have criticised Impact Group. Not all critics of the leak are supportive of Ashley Madison’s infidelity dating model, as the nature of the attack raises complex concerns about individual privacy rights and vigilantism.

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Safari Users to Sue Google

Google Logo 2010Users of Safari, Apple’s internet browser, which comes installed as standard on many of the company’s products, have won the right to sue Google over issues of privacy. A Court of Appeal bid, in which Google sought to block the legal action, has ruled against the search giant.

The users in question claim that Google misused privacy settings and bypassed security features of the Safari browser for its targeted advertising campaigns. By bypassing their security settings, Google was able to install cookies to track the internet activities of users. This information was then used to guide advertising campaigns and choose which adverts would be displayed to those users based on their browsing history.

Google took the case to the Court of Appeal seeking to prevent legal action from the claimants. The company claimed that Safari users could not sue because they had suffered no financial loss as a result of the company’s actions, and therefore there was no case for Google to answer to. However, the court ruled that the claimants’ allegations “raise serious issues which merit a trial.”

Google’s defeat in the Court of Appeal was described by one of the users seeking to sue as “a David and Goliath victory.” Google, on the other hand, said that it was “disappointed with the court’s decision” to allow the claimants to bring legal action against the company.

Safari is installed as standard on the computers produced by Apple, as well as on other devices such as the popular iPad range of tablets. Allegedly, the “Safari Workaround” was utilised by Google to get around the security settings and preferences of the browser in order to install cookies – pieces of code that can track and record data – against the wishes of the users. These then gathered information about the ethnicity, social demographic, and browsing habits of those users without their knowledge or consent so that Google could more specifically target them with advertising.

According to the Court of Appeal’s judgement, the allegations against Google “concern what is alleged to have been the secret and blanket tracking and collation of information, often of an extremely private nature… and the subsequent use of that information for about nine months. The case relates to the anxiety and distress this intrusion upon autonomy has caused.”

Should the case against Google prove successful, the millions of people in the UK who use Apple devices could potentially be able to bring similar cases against the web giant.

According to one claimant, Judith  Vidal-Hall, “The Court of Appeal has ensured Google cannot use its vast resources to evade English justice.” As a result, she said, “Ordinary computer users like me will now have the right to hold this giant to account before the courts for its unacceptable, immoral and unjust actions.”

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Home Office’s controversial Data Communications Bill

With data protection laws in place, most information about individuals in the UK is kept strictly confidential. A new bill however which is to be introduced by the Home Office has been facing strong opposition from various groups. The Data Communications Bill could soon require companies to collect information about their customers, retain them and then provide the police with automated access to the system if such information is needed.

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The Home Office have said that this step needs to be taken in order to ‘keep the public safe’. Currently when requested by police, information is passed on from businesses, in order to maintain a stable society through cooperation. The bill however has been criticised by privacy campaigners, all types of businesses, and cyber security experts.

The proposed changes to be made by the bill could cost around £1.8 billion, with which comes several other problems. The plan is to be carried out by an internet based company, chosen by the Home Office, who would need to set up a database system to carry out these functions. The system would need to be able to collect new data, and store it. Automated access would then need to be given to the police, however which information is passed on to the police would remain discreet in the eyes of the business that initially had collected the data.

For small businesses in particular, the bill could seem quite a challenge with the additional cost of setting up a way to collect the necessary information and then to retain it. Tech startups could also be affected on all scales, national and international. On the global level UK startups could be at a disadvantage where negotiations fail as a result of the new data rules. New businessmen and businesswomen could eventually move their business elsewhere due to the strict penalties for breaches of data laws imposed by the European Union. Digital businesses could be faced with a major barrier in growth. Whether or not the new data laws will be a success yet remains to be seen!

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Facebook and Google in Privacy Row

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The latest stage in the ongoing concerns regarding online privacy has seen the likes of Facebook and Google, and other online giants, criticised for the use of personal data. It is not the first time concerns have been raised, and it certainly will not be the last. This time it is the EU that is looking for users to be given more control over how their personal information is used. Currently it is permissible for such companies to sell browsing habits and other useful information to others, although many users are unaware that this is so.

The call is for users to be able to opt out – deny the company the opportunity to profit from such information – or agree to its use. Both Facebook and Google, who make a great deal of money from such practices, are strongly against this option. However, data of this sort is also used by health services and other service industries, and they are concerned that any changes may affect their ability to provide the best service.

Flourishing European Market

Erika Mann, head of European policy for Facebook, expressed her concerns over the proposals:

“We are concerned that some aspects of the report do not support a flourishing European digital single market and the reality of innovation on the internet.”

She went on to point out that, by its very nature, the internet is inescapably global. Privacy lobbyists have also been vocal on the subject, and have been pointing out that such companies are not concerned with the privacy of their users, but with making profits. There is, however, a precedent for increased privacy, as image-hosting site Instagram recently pulled a proposal to sell users photos to advertisers. After announcing the plan it found almost 25% of users had deserted it within a week.

Facebook, Google and others may do well to heed this instance as online users do not want their private information used for the gains of others.

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