NZ Company’s Re-Use of Canadian Facebook User Profiles Allegedly Violated Privacy Law

According to a recent investigation, a company that copied the profiles of millions of Facebook users around the world and then posted them on its own website violated the privacy rights of millions of Canadians.

Profile Technology, a New Zealand-based company and operator of the Profile Engine website, allegedly collected profile information originally set to “public” on Facebook while providing search function services for users, but it later allegedly used the information to start its own social networking website.

According to FTC defense and privacy lawyer Richard B. Newman, recent reports are that the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada received a number of complaints from individuals that discovered their personal information had been posted on a website called “The Profile Engine.”

One complainant is reported to have stated that the information had been taken from a Facebook profile she had as a teenager and that anyone searching her name (e.g., potential employers) would make negative assumptions about her. Another complainant stated that unfounded allegations of assault that had been originally posted and then removed from Facebook were accessible via the Profile Engine website.

Profile Technology’s position is that consent was not required because it operated as a search engine that permitted users to locate information otherwise available via Facebook.

The investigation, however, did not find Profile Technology’s arguments to be persuasive. Instead, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner found that the Profile Technology website used personal information without consent and for inappropriate purposes. It found that the profile information at issue was not “publicly available” within the meaning of Canada’s federal private sector privacy law. Importantly, the profiles allegedly re-used by Profile Engine website represented a specific snapshot in time. According to the investigation, the foregoing resulted in stale and inaccurate information about individuals.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has recommended that Profile Technology delete all profiles and groups associated with Canadians. While the company initially refused, reports are than it subsequently removed all Facebook profile information from its website and mitigated complainants’ concerns.

According to the OPC, Profile Engine uploaded the information to an archive service and, consequently, available for mass download with some identifiers encrypted. Reports are that that OPC has shared its findings with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of New Zealand, which has agreed to consider what options may be available under New Zealand laws. The OPCA has also reportedly been in contact with Facebook which apparently has been litigating with Profile Technology for a number of years in relation to the Profile Engine user information.

Richard B. Newman is an advertising and digital media law attorney at Hinch Newman LLP. You can follow him on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FTCLawDefense.

Informational purposes only. Not legal advice. Always seek the advice of an attorney. Previous case results do not guarantee similar future result. Hinch Newman LLP | 40 Wall St., 35th Floor, New York, NY 10005 | (212) 756-8777.

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