Meta sues surveillance company over fake profiles

Voyager Labs
Voyager Labs hands over the responsibility that their surveillance software is used legally to their customers. (Source: Voyager Labs – Screenshot Posteo)

The social media company Meta filed a lawsuit against the British company Voyager Labs in a federal court in California on Thursday. The surveillance company is accused of creating tens of thousands of fake accounts on various social media platforms in order to collect large amounts of publicly accessible information about users.

In court, Meta wants Voyager Labs to be banned from using Facebook and Instagram. The company is alleged to have engaged in scraping and data mining with the help of the accounts and its proprietary monitoring software. According to Meta, the mass, automated tapping of data violates the platforms’ terms of use.

In addition to damages, the platform operator is demanding that Voyager Labs disclose the location of all data collected by Facebook and Instagram and delete it. The surveillance company is also supposed to name all the entities with which the data was shared – in other words, disclose its clientele.

The court documents say Voyager Labs created more than 38,000 fake profiles on Facebook alone between July and September 2022 and used them to tap information on more than 600,000 users of the platform.

YouTube, Twitter & Co. also affected

Along with filing the lawsuit, Meta has deactivated the accounts operated by Voyager Labs, the group said in a blog post on Thursday. The surveillance company also created profiles on Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and Telegram to collect data as well, it said.

“Voyager designed its scraping software to use fake accounts to scrape data accessible to a user when logged into Facebook, including users profile information, posts, friends lists, photos and comments.” Meta explained. Voyager Labs sold the collected data for profit, it said. The company used computers and networks in various countries to hide its activities, which included hiding from Meta’s inspections, it said.

Investigator or accomplice?

Voyager Labs describes itself as a “provider of AI-based investigative solutions.” Thecompany’s site says: “Our proprietary AI technology enables investigators to easily analyze massive amounts of intelligence information as well as open, deep, and dark web data, understand content and human interactions and find hidden or unknown connections and relationships.”

Meta, on the other hand, calls the service a “scraping service for hire” and criticizes, “Companies like Voyager are part of an industry that provides scraping services to anyone regardless of the users they target and for what purpose, including as a way to profile people for criminal behavior.” The way the data is collected could violate civil liberties, it said.

Cooperation with US police

Meta had already asked Voyager Labs to refrain from scraping data in 2021. Before that, it was revealed that in 2019, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) had also used Voyager Labs’ services.

The software tested by the police used the very methods that Meta is now denouncing in its lawsuit. With the help of fictitious social media accounts, the officers were able to investigate people’s activities and screen their contact networks.

The cooperation was criticized, among other things because the activities of friendly user accounts were also recorded in the investigations, even if their owners were not under investigation. Moreover, the software was not only intended to help solve crimes that had already been committed. Voyager Labs also claimed that the software could identify people who might commit crimes in the future.

The developer also promised that the program could detect political, religious and extremist beliefs. The civil rights organization Brennan Center for Justice expressed doubts about its reliability in late 2021, warning that it would discriminate against Muslims and other marginalized groups. However, internal documents available at the time did not reveal exactly which parts of the software the LAPD ultimately had in use. During the testing phase, police had examined more than 500 user accounts and thousands of messages.

Meta then sent an open letter to the LAPD asking it to stop using the “dummy” accounts and to stop collecting data. The group referred the LAPD chief to the platform’s own guidelines, which prohibited the agency’s actions.

Voyager Labs showed little awareness of the problem at the time, pointing out that these were the decisions of customers, “in which Voyager has no involvement at all.” A company spokeswoman had stated, “We also trust that those we do business with are law-abiding public and private organizations.”

To date, Voyager Labs has not responded to inquiries from various media outlets regarding the current lawsuit. (hcz)