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Facebook users gain leverage in Cambridge Analytica lawsuit

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Facebook Inc users suing over the social network's worst-ever privacy scandal won leverage to pry into its internal records to back up their claims that the company failed to safeguard their personal data.

[SAN FRANCISCO] Facebook Inc users suing over the social network's worst-ever privacy scandal won leverage to pry into its internal records to back up their claims that the company failed to safeguard their personal data.

A federal judge in San Francisco rejected Facebook's bid to throw out a lawsuit claiming the company deceived users into allowing their data to be harvested and sold to a UK political consulting firm that then mined the information to help Donald Trump win the 2016 US presidential election.

The lawsuit "adequately alleges that users never consented to Facebook's widespread practice of allowing companies to sell and otherwise misuse sensitive user information, as opposed to restricting the use of this information as Facebook promised it would", US District Judge Vince Chhabria wrote in Monday's ruling.

In allowing the suit over Cambridge Analytica to move forward, Judge Chhabria didn't address the merits of users' claims. But he opened the door for them to get a glimpse of Facebook's internal operations in their quest for make the company pay damages and rewrite policies for handling personal information.

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District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine, who filed a similar suit against Facebook, won permission on May 31 to proceed with his case. The company agreed in July to pay US$5 billion to resolve a US Federal Trade Commission investigation of privacy violations stemming from the scandal.

Facebook has faced a storm of controversy since the revelation early last year that Mr Trump's campaign benefited from the work of an app developer who started out by collecting personal information from 300,000 users, and later, from those users' friends. Unbeknownst to users, the developer shared the data trove with Cambridge Analytica, which used the information to target voters in 2016 with hyper-specific appeals through "psychographic" modelling.

While Cambridge Analytica's research drew on as many as 87 million Facebook users, the ensuing lawsuits were filed on behalf of everyone in the US who uses the social network.

A central allegation is that Facebook illegally exploited users who programmed their privacy settings to share data with "friends only". Facebook is accused of taking information about those users from their friends and wantonly turning it over to app developers to profit from the advertising they spawn.

Facebook contends it disclosed its practices in user agreements. It has also argued that anyone sharing their information on a social network shouldn't count on holding onto their privacy.

"You have to closely guard something in order to have a reasonable expectation of privacy," the company's lawyer, Orin Snyder, told judge Chhabria at a May 29 hearing. "There is no expectation of privacy when you go on a social media platform," the purpose of which is to share things with big groups of people, he said.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrated in a "dramatic way" that Facebook can't control when an app developer breaks its own data-sharing agreement with the company, the lawyer said.

"You can't cry foul, that there's gambling going on in this establishment, when you've been warned," Mr Snyder told the judge.

Lawyers for the users said in an emailed statement that they "look forward to the discovery process that will prove our clients' claims."

Facebook didn't immediately respond to an email request for comment.

The case is In Re Facebook Consumer Privacy User Profile Litigation, 18-MD-02843, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).

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