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Meta Lowers Legal Hammer on Law Enforcement Data Scraper

Meta is suing a law enforcement intelligence firm for collecting data on users of its Facebook and Instagram platforms.

The action, filed in federal court in California, claims that Voyager Labs, an international scraping and spying firm, fraudulently acquired data from those properties by using bogus identities, which is a violation of the platforms’ terms and conditions.

Director of Platform Enforcement and Litigation Jessica Romero noted in a January 12 article on Meta’s Newsroom blog that Voyager’s proprietary software scrapes data accessible to a user signed into Facebook using phoney identities.

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She went on to say that Voyager utilised a broad network of computers and networks in many locations to conceal its activity and thwart Meta’s attempts to authenticate the bogus accounts.

According to Romero, Voyager did not infiltrate Facebook, but instead created phoney accounts to harvest publicly available information.

“Web scraping is lawful if you scrape publicly available information,” said Liz Miller, vice president and lead analyst at Constellation Research, a Cupertino, California-based technology research and advising organisation.

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“The issue in Meta’s lawsuit against Voyager Labs is the establishment of false Facebook profiles that were utilised for data collecting,” Miller told TechNewsWorld.

Scraping Industry

According to Romero, Meta is seeking a permanent injunction against Voyager in order to safeguard individuals from scraping-for-hire businesses.

“Companies like Voyager are part of an industry that sells scraping services to anybody, regardless of who they target or for what reason, including profiling people for criminal activity,” she added.

“This industry collects information that individuals share with their community, family, and friends without control or responsibility, and in a way that may jeopardise people’s civil rights,” she explained.

“These services operate across numerous platforms and national lines, and deterring exploitation of these capabilities requires a collaborative effort from platforms, politicians, and civil society,” she noted.

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Voyager did not respond promptly to a request for comment on this story. “As a corporation, we obey the rules of all the nations in which we conduct business,” a spokeswoman previously told The Guardian. We are also certain that the public and commercial entities with whom we do business are law-abiding.”

Meta’s Business Considerations

While Meta stressed its attempts to safeguard individuals, it also had commercial reasons that require guarding.

“Unfortunately, Meta’s problem isn’t actually about data scraping. It’s that Voyager didn’t pay Meta to do it,” contended Roger Grimes, a defence evangelist with KnowBe4, a security awareness training firm in Clearwater, Fla.

“If Voyager had paid, Meta would have been overjoyed,” Grimes said to TechNewsWorld.

According to Vincent Raynauld, an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Emerson College in Boston, data is at the heart of social media businesses’ economic models.

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“These sites reuse the data that users generate for advertising,” Raynauld told TechNewsWorld. “It’s crucial to their business strategies.”

“They’re attempting to safeguard their business model with this lawsuit,” he said. They want to retain ownership of their data and prevent other corporations from utilising it.”

“They see commercial potential go when they see researchers or other firms harvesting data,” he added.

“Meta clearly want to preserve its assets,” Raynauld remarked. “It’s a warning shot to marketers and researchers.”

Common Practice, Common Problem

Data scraping on social networking platforms is a prevalent technique.

“It is normal practise to scrape publicly available and viewable data on social networking sites such as Facebook and Instagram, as well as Twitter and LinkedIn,” Miller explained.

“Advertisers and marketers frequently use it to watch trends, target audiences, or create audience profiles,” she added. “If you’ve ever researched pricing on a website to obtain the greatest deal on a product, you’ve most definitely profited from bot-based web scraping.”

Miller stated that most social scraping is for benign purposes, but there are outliers, such as bots used for ad fraud, traffic scams, identity theft, and account hacking.

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“I think scrapping is a lot worse than everyone understands, including Meta,” Grimes remarked. “Every day, I’m sure hundreds, if not thousands, of data scraping operations target social networking sites.”

“It’s probably so awful,” he said, “that Meta is only concerned with the biggest and most revenue-damaging incidents.”

Minimizing Unethical Scraping

Grimes said that combating unethical data scraping is a major issue. “It’s similar to phishing and password guessing,” he explained. “The sellers have little possibility of stopping it. The most they can hope for is to halt the most obvious and outrageous occurrences.”

Miller pointed out that most social media networks have implemented barriers to harmful scraping through their terms and conditions of use.

“However, others want to restrict non-malicious scraping in order to require corporations to only go via, say, Meta for some of the insights that social scraping may give,” she noted.

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According to Romero, litigation is simply one of the measures Meta use to prevent scraping. “We’ve also invested in technological teams and technologies to monitor and detect suspicious activity, as well as the use of unlawful automation for scraping,” she said.

“This emphasis on scraping is part of our continuous work to preserve people’s privacy,” she continued. “We want to disclose some of the other efforts we’re taking to proactively reduce scraping in the coming months.”

Legal Whack-A-Mole

Until new anti-malicious scraping mechanisms are revealed, lawsuits may be the most effective way of putting a stop to the activity.

“Being sued is a strong inducement not to do it,” Grimes said. “Who wants to be sued by a tech behemoth? Even if you’ve done nothing wrong and are fully in the right, you might spend millions simply to get to the first day of a court hearing.”

“That’s the nature of disputes, especially in the United States, where the loser rarely has to pay winner’s fees,” he continued.

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“Lawsuits are like acquiring a larger mallet while playing whack-a-mole,” Miller explained. “You may take one out of the game, but another malevolent mole will almost certainly reappear.”

“However,” she said, “in the absence of legislation or a judgement that scraping publicly available data is illegal, the purpose is to wear them down with the cost of litigation.”

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