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Ireland Regulator: LinkedIn Processed Email Addresses Of 18 Million Non-Members

LinkedIn logo On Friday November 23rd, the Data Protection Commission (DPC) in Ireland released its annual report. That report includes the results of an investigation by the DPC of the LinkedIn.com social networking site, after a 2017 complaint by a person who didn't use the social networking service. Apparently, LinkedIn obtained 18 million email address of non-members so it could then use the Facebook platform to deliver advertisements encouraging them to join.

The DPC 2018 report (Adobe PDF; 827k bytes) stated on page 21:

"The DPC concluded its audit of LinkedIn Ireland Unlimited Company (LinkedIn) in respect of its processing of personal data following an investigation of a complaint notified to the DPC by a non-LinkedIn user. The complaint concerned LinkedIn’s obtaining and use of the complainant’s email address for the purpose of targeted advertising on the Facebook Platform. Our investigation identified that LinkedIn Corporation (LinkedIn Corp) in the U.S., LinkedIn Ireland’s data processor, had processed hashed email addresses of approximately 18 million non-LinkedIn members and targeted these individuals on the Facebook Platform with the absence of instruction from the data controller (i.e. LinkedIn Ireland), as is required pursuant to Section 2C(3)(a) of the Acts. The complaint was ultimately amicably resolved, with LinkedIn implementing a number of immediate actions to cease the processing of user data for the purposes that gave rise to the complaint."

So, in an attempt to gain more users LinkedIn acquired and processed the email addresses of 18 million non-members without getting governmental "instruction" as required by law. Not good.

The DPC report covered the time frame from January 1st through May 24, 2018. The report did not mention the source(s) from which LinkedIn acquired the email addresses. The DPC report also discussed investigations of Facebook (e.g., WhatsApp, facial recognition),  and Yahoo/Oath. Microsoft acquired LinkedIn in 2016. GDPR went into effect across the EU on May 25, 2018.

There is more. The investigation's findings raised concerns about broader compliance issues, so the DPC conducted a more in-depth audit:

"... to verify that LinkedIn had in place appropriate technical security and organisational measures, particularly for its processing of non-member data and its retention of such data. The audit identified that LinkedIn Corp was undertaking the pre-computation of a suggested professional network for non-LinkedIn members. As a result of the findings of our audit, LinkedIn Corp was instructed by LinkedIn Ireland, as data controller of EU user data, to cease pre-compute processing and to delete all personal data associated with such processing prior to 25 May 2018."

That the DPC ordered LinkedIn to stop this particular data processing, strongly suggests that the social networking service's activity probably violated data protection laws, as the European Union (EU) implements stronger privacy laws, known as General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). ZDNet explained in this primer:

".... GDPR is a new set of rules designed to give EU citizens more control over their personal data. It aims to simplify the regulatory environment for business so both citizens and businesses in the European Union can fully benefit from the digital economy... almost every aspect of our lives revolves around data. From social media companies, to banks, retailers, and governments -- almost every service we use involves the collection and analysis of our personal data. Your name, address, credit card number and more all collected, analysed and, perhaps most importantly, stored by organisations... Data breaches inevitably happen. Information gets lost, stolen or otherwise released into the hands of people who were never intended to see it -- and those people often have malicious intent. Under the terms of GDPR, not only will organisations have to ensure that personal data is gathered legally and under strict conditions, but those who collect and manage it will be obliged to protect it from misuse and exploitation, as well as to respect the rights of data owners - or face penalties for not doing so... There are two different types of data-handlers the legislation applies to: 'processors' and 'controllers'. The definitions of each are laid out in Article 4 of the General Data Protection Regulation..."

The new GDPR applies to both companies operating within the EU, and to companies located outside of the EU which offer goods or services to customers or businesses inside the EU. As a result, some companies have changed their business processes. TechCrunch reported in April:

"Facebook has another change in the works to respond to the European Union’s beefed up data protection framework — and this one looks intended to shrink its legal liabilities under GDPR, and at scale. Late yesterday Reuters reported on a change incoming to Facebook’s [Terms & Conditions policy] that it said will be pushed out next month — meaning all non-EU international are switched from having their data processed by Facebook Ireland to Facebook USA. With this shift, Facebook will ensure that the privacy protections afforded by the EU’s incoming GDPR — which applies from May 25 — will not cover the ~1.5 billion+ international Facebook users who aren’t EU citizens (but current have their data processed in the EU, by Facebook Ireland). The U.S. does not have a comparable data protection framework to GDPR..."

What was LinkedIn's response to the DPC report? At press time, a search of LinkedIn's blog and press areas failed to find any mentions of the DPC investigation. TechCrunch reported statements by Dennis Kelleher, Head of Privacy, EMEA at LinkedIn:

"... Unfortunately the strong processes and procedures we have in place were not followed and for that we are sorry. We’ve taken appropriate action, and have improved the way we work to ensure that this will not happen again. During the audit, we also identified one further area where we could improve data privacy for non-members and we have voluntarily changed our practices as a result."

What does this mean? Plenty. There seem to be several takeaways for consumer and users of social networking services:

  • EU regulators are proactive and conduct detailed audits to ensure companies both comply with GDPR and act consistent with any promises they made,
  • LinkedIn wants consumers to accept another "we are sorry" corporate statement. No thanks. No more apologies. Actions speak more loudly than words,
  • The DPC didn't fine LinkedIn probably because GDPR didn't become effective until May 25, 2018. This suggests that fines will be applied to violations occurring on or after May 25, 2018, and
  • People in different areas of the world view privacy and data protection differently - as they should. That is fine, and it shouldn't be a surprise. (A global survey about self-driving cars found similar regional differences.) Smart executives in businesses -- and in governments -- worldwide recognize regional differences, find ways to sell products and services across areas without degraded customer experience, and don't try to force their country's approach on other countries or areas which don't want it.

What takeaways do you see?

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