Facebook is to be sued in Europe over the major leak of user data that dates back to 2019 but which only came to light recently after information on more than 533 million accounts was found posted for free download on a hacker forum.
Today Digital Rights Ireland (DRI) announced it's commencing a "mass action" to sue Facebook, citing the right to monetary compensation for breaches of personal data that's set out in the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Article 82 of the GDPR provides for a "right to compensation and liability" for those affected by violations of the law. Since the regulation came into force, in May 2018, related civil litigation has been on the rise in the region.
The Ireland-based digital rights group is urging Facebook users who live in the European Union or European Economic Area to check whether their data was breached -- via the haveibeenpwned website (which lets you check by email address or mobile number) -- and sign up to join the case if so.
Information leaked via the breach includes Facebook IDs, location, mobile phone numbers, email address, relationship status and employer.
Facebook has been contacted for comment on the litigation. Update: A Facebook spokesperson said:
We understand people's concerns, which is why we continue to strengthen our systems to make scraping from Facebook without our permission more difficult and go after the people behind it. As LinkedIn and Clubhouse have shown, no company can completely eliminate scraping or prevent data sets like these from appearing. That's why we devote substantial resources to combat it and will continue to build out our capabilities to help stay ahead of this challenge.
The tech giant's European headquarters is located in Ireland -- and earlier this week the national data watchdog opened an investigation, under EU and Irish data protection laws.
A mechanism in the GDPR for simplifying investigation of cross-border cases means Ireland's Data Protection Commission (DPC) is Facebook's lead data regulator in the EU. However it has been criticized over its handling of and approach to GDPR complaints and investigations -- including the length of time it's taking to issue decisions on major cross-border cases. And this is particularly true for Facebook.
With the three-year anniversary of the GDPR fast approaching, the DPC has multiple open investigations into various aspects of Facebook's business but has yet to issue a single decision against the company.
(The closest it's come is a preliminary suspension order issued last year, in relation to Facebook's EU to U.S. data transfers. However, that complaint long predates GDPR; and Facebook immediately filed to block the order via the courts. A resolution is expected later this year after the litigant filed his own judicial review of the DPC's processes.)
Since May 2018 the EU's data protection regime has -- at least on paper -- baked in fines of up to 4% of a company's global annual turnover for the most serious violations.
Again, though, the sole GDPR fine issued to date by the DPC against a tech giant (Twitter) is very far off that theoretical maximum. Last December the regulator announced a €450,000 (~$547,000) sanction against Twitter -- which works out to around just 0.1% of the company's full-year revenue.
That penalty was also for a data breach -- but one which, unlike the Facebook leak, had been publicly disclosed when Twitter found it in 2019. So Facebook's failure to disclose the vulnerability it discovered and claims it fixed by September 2019, which led to the leak of 533 million accounts now, suggests it should face a higher sanction from the DPC than Twitter received.
However, even if Facebook ends up with a more substantial GDPR penalty for this breach the watchdog's caseload backlog and plodding procedural pace makes it hard to envisage a swift resolution to an investigation that's only a few days old.
Judging by past performance it'll be years before the DPC decides on this 2019 Facebook leak -- which likely explains why the DRI sees value in instigating class action-style litigation in parallel to the regulatory investigation.
"Compensation is not the only thing that makes this mass action worth joining. It is important to send a message to large data controllers that they must comply with the law and that there is a cost to them if they do not," DRI writes on its website.
It also submitted a complaint about the Facebook breach to the DPC earlier this month, writing then that it was "also consulting with its legal advisors on other options including a mass action for damages in the Irish Courts".
It's clear that the GDPR enforcement gap is creating a growing opportunity for litigation funders to step in in Europe and take a punt on suing for data-related compensation damages -- with a number of other mass actions announced last year.
In the case of DRI its focus is evidently on seeking to ensure that digital rights are upheld. But it told RTE that it believes compensation claims which force tech giants to pay money to users whose privacy rights have been violated is the best way to make them legally compliant.
Facebook, meanwhile, has sought to play down the breach it failed to disclose in 2019 -- claiming it's "old data" -- a deflection that ignores the fact that people's dates of birth don't change (nor do most people routinely change their mobile number or email address).
Plenty of the "old" data exposed in this latest massive Facebook leak will be very handy for spammers and fraudsters to target Facebook users -- and also now for litigators to target Facebook for data-related damages.