Special Report

Delinking From LinkedIn

A chirpy "Hello" from your phantom friends has led to a lawsuit.

By 9.23.13

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As the NSA phone records scandal recedes in the public consciousness, private marketers are quietly invading our computer systems in their own intrusive ways, enabled by a sea of floating data around social networks and related sites.

Taken together, privacy in America has never been more in play. Now a backlash is brewing.

Companies such as LinkedIn, the dominant job-hunters’ and networking site, are expert at taking private email addresses and sending “invitations” to third parties using borrowed identities. To attract recipients’ attention, most of these emails arrive with email “sent” addresses of friends, colleagues, or contacts data-mined from the user’s mailbox. President Obama, who spoke at a jobs-related Town Hall meeting sponsored by LinkedIn, seemed blissfully unaware of the gathering storm around the company.

Facebook, equally powerful, is more cautious with member data but still manages to spam the world on a regular basis. I receive Facebook emails almost every day asking whether I know several people. Zap, zap, and zap is my response.

Other companies sell their Internet email savvy to smaller businesses such vitamin marketers or self-published books, then broadcast emails naming a specific friend who “recommends” the product. The friend is of course not in the loop.

A software executive of my acquaintance said in answer to my queries last week, “Social networks are a freight train and there is no driver.”

Drivers may be slowly surfacing, however. Now the courts are being asked to get involved. Four outraged web users are suing LinkedIn for what they call LinkedIn’s “hacking” practices to obtain friends’ or contacts’ email addresses. A selection of these addresses will then receive invitations seemingly sent by or on behalf of the hacking victim. “The hacking of the users’ email accounts and downloading of all email addresses associated with that user’s account is done without clearly notifying the user or obtaining his or her consent,” the complaint alleges. The suit, which the complainants hope to develop into a class action, was launched by a former New York Times advertising executive, a statistics professor, a former vice president of Morgan Creek films, and a San Francisco lawyer.

LinkedIn spokesman Doug Madey responded with an official rejection of the terms of the suit. “We believe that the legal claims in this lawsuit are without merit, and we intend to fight it vigorously,” he said.

LinkedIn uses “permission marketing” techniques, a procedure that requires the user’s okay to send or receive the email. The confusion arises when the user has unwittingly given what LinkedIn considers to be “permission.” The language on the LinkedIn signup can be confusing to a new user. The approach is often couched in friendly tones, as in a happy announcement for a new API (application programming interface) “so-new-it’s-still-got-the-plastic-film-on-it.”

“LinkedIn's accessing of email addresses far exceeds the authority and consent to which LinkedIn users provide,” the suit alleges. “LinkedIn does not inform its users that each email address appropriated from a user's external email account will be sent multiple emails inviting the recipient to join LinkedIn with the user's endorsement.”

After I enrolled in LinkedIn, I was offered a list of 98 people, most from my address book, who are LinkedIn members and were considered potential users to link up with me. I read the instructions carefully and avoided triggering a major spam event. A further 88 were people not participating in LinkedIn’s business. That list is headed with a cheery “Why not invite these people not yet on LinkedIn?” One of the addresses was for a friend who died two years ago. Several others were company addresses, not people.

While some users derive benefit from professional networks, blogs are alive with complaints of spam and clutter that use personal identities unbeknownst to the “sender.” Such identity borrowing, if not outright theft, is at the root of these trends.

As a Forbes online writer recently put it: “Do you get LinkedIn connection requests from people you have never met or don’t know at all? For me, at least, those kinds of notifications far outnumber requests from people I actually do know well.”

Wrote one blogger, “I can’t see the value of ad-hoc connections on LinkedIn. People you’d be interested in professionally but don’t know will likely (or should) have some other way to reach them.… If they don’t, they likely don’t want to be contacted by strangers anyway.”

In my case, my name was used in contacts with a nationally known cartoonist I had corresponded with twice but never met, and with my next-door neighbor, both of whom responded in good faith with a “yes.” Bingo – LinkedIn had two more “connections” and I had to apologize twice for trespassing. In the other direction, two women I had long since lost touch with “invited” me into their pages. At first I thought, “Hmmmmm.” Then I twigged, as the Brits say, and did not respond. They have since denied to me that they had any knowledge of the invitations or the multiple reminder followups.

My favorite LinkedIn story concerns a working girl who went ballistic when her boss received a phony invitation allegedly sent by her. The implication was that she was job-hunting and asking her own supervisor to lend a hand.

Something is going right for this company, now celebrating its tenth anniversary and growing apace. No doubt the current extended period of high unemployment has forced millions into startup consultancies for the first time, and LinkedIn provides a free service to announce services. Some 225 million users worldwide are registered with the firm.

First quarter revenues this year hit $324.7 million, up 72 percent over the same period last year. LinkedIn is forecasting a banner year for 2013, with revenues projected at or around $1.4 billion. It has recently rolled out a new facility that allows LinkedIn users to open up a page showing who has been looking at their information.

They are standing by their mantra, “Your professional network of trusted connections.”

They may want to work on that.

Photo: UPI ("President Barack Obama answers a question from the audience during a Town Hall meeting sponsored by LinkedIn as LinkedIn's CEO Jeff Weiner sits at left, at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California on September 26, 2011. The meeting was on the subject of jobs.")

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.