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Facebook accused of violating US wiretap law

'Like' cookies tracked users, even when logged out

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A Mississippi woman has accused Facebook of violating federal wiretap statutes by tracking her internet browsing history even when she wasn't logged onto the social networking site.

In a lawsuit filed on Wednesday in federal court in the northern district of Mississippi, Brooke Rutledge of Lafayette County, Mississippi, also asserted claims for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, trespassing, and invasion of privacy.

The complaint, which seeks class-action status so other users can join, comes three weeks after Australian blogger Nik Cubrilovic published evidence that Facebook “Like” buttons scattered across the web allowed Facebook to track users' browsing habits even when they were signed out of their accounts.

“Leading up to September 23, 2011, Facebook tracked, collected, and stored its users' wire or electronic communications, including but not limited to portions of their internet browsing history even when the users were not logged-in to Facebook,” the 17-page complaint stated. “Plaintiff did not give consent or otherwise authorize Facebook to intercept, track, collect, and store her wire or electronic communications, including but not limited to her internet browsing history when not logged-in to Facebook.”

The complaint claims the behavior violated provisions of Facebook's own privacy policy that state: “If you're logged out or don't have a Facebook account and visit a website with the Like button or another social plugin, your browser sends us a more limited set of information. For example, because you're not logged in to Facebook, we don't receive your User ID.”

But according to Cubrilovic Facebook cookies containing unique identifiers remain on a user's hard drive and are sent back to the social network each time he visits a third-party site containing a Facebook Like icon.

“Even when you are logged out, Facebook still knows and can track every page you visit,” Cubrilovic wrote.

Facebook has since said that many of the cookies Cubrilovic referred to are intended to foil spam and phishing attacks and that not all of the data sent back to the social networking site is logged.

Wednesday's complaint is the latest to seek redress for alleged privacy violations that result from cookies and other files that websites use to track the browsing habits of their visitors. In the past 18 months, Disney, Microsoft, McDonalds, and others have all been sued, often for using technologies that respawn tracking cookies even after users have deleted them. Many of them have been tossed out of court because plaintiffs couldn't quantify monetary damages that resulted from the practice.

Facebook representatives didn't respond to an email seeking comment for this post. ®

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