MANHATTAN (CN) - Ringleader Digital, an advertising company "hacked the mobile phones of millions of consumers" to create a database of customers' demographic information for the benefit of major media networks such as Fox News and CNN, according to a federal class action.
Delaware-based Ringleader "stamped" a "Unique Device Identifier" into customers' cell phones, compatible with iPhone, iPad, iTouch and PDAs and other devices, the complaint states.
Once entered into their phones, the class claims, say the code sent their private information to a database that Ringleader shared with AccuWeather, CNN, ESPN, FOX News, Go2 Media, Merriam-Webster, Travel Channel, and WhitePages, all of them named as defendants.
"Essentially, defendants hacked the mobile phones of millions of consumers ... by embedding a tracking code in each user's mobile device database to circumvent users' browser controls for managing web privacy and security," the complaint states.
The class claims the database collected information about "gender, age, race, number of children, education level, geographic location, and household income."
In addition, the database monitored "what the web user looked at and what he/she bought, the materials he/she read, details about his/her financial situation, his/her sexual preference, his/her name, home address, e-mail address and telephone number, and even more specific information like health conditions," according to the complaint.
The class claims that Ringleader kept them under "systematic and continuous surveillance," and even promoted its product to clients by advertising that, "Utilizing the advances in GPS technology, marketers can now determine the precise location of mobile users - within three feet."
Since one of the class members is 12 years old, his surveillance violated the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, the class claims.
The class claims that Ringleader CEO Bob Walczak told a panel, "The whole focus has been on layering GPS in virtually any type of content, and taking that location awareness down to the content level."
The complaint states: "The company's ad servers act like decision engines, figuring out when and what advertising messages to send to individuals based on ad category, time of day, the user's GPS-derived location and search query keywords they may have entered."
When they learned about the invasion of their privacy, some customers tried to delete the code, but it was programmed for "perpetual re-spawning, creating in effect: 'Zombie Databases,'" the complaint states.
The class seeks millions of dollars in punitive damages against Ringleader and its media partners for violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, Electronic Communications Privacy Act, New York General Business Law, and trespass.
It is represented by David A. Stampley with Kamberlaw.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.