(CN) — A federal judge took a dim view of the constitutionality of a Thomson Reuters database containing peoples’ identities for investigative research purposes, pushing forward claims that the database infringes privacy rights.
“The harm to plaintiffs is tremendous: an all-encompassing invasion of plaintiffs’ privacy, whereby virtually everything about them — including their contact information, partially redacted social security number, criminal history, family history, and even whether they got an abortion, to name just a few — is transmitted to strangers without their knowledge, let alone their consent,” U.S. District Judge Edward Chen wrote in a 29-page ruling.
The ruling means only the case can proceed to the discovery phase of the trial and is not tantamount to a final decision, but the reasoning the judge used to deny the motion to dismiss bodes ill for Thomson Reuters, a worldwide provider of news information and business services.
“There is a serious question of material fact as to whether Thomson Reuters’s opt-out mechanism even complies with the CCPA,” Chen wrote, using an abbreviation for the California Consumer Privacy Act, a consumer-privacy law for the digital age that forces companies to disclose the sale of their information to third parties.
Thomson Reuters argues its CLEAR service, a searchable database that contains individuals’ names and other information scraped from various public data sources, provides a valuable resource and only aggregates information already publicly available.
Chen found this argument unpersuasive at this stage of litigation.
“Thomson Reuters boasts on its website that the CLEAR platform allows its users to uncover information about plaintiffs that is ‘not ascertainable via public records or traditional search engine queries,’ ‘facts hidden online,’ and ‘key proprietary and public records,’” Chen wrote.
Thomson Reuters further argued that, as a media organization, that there is a countervailing public benefit that outweighs the right to privacy, a common argument journalists make when standing up for the right to publish information about public officials or celebrities.
But the plaintiffs say they are not public figures but are private citizens who have not chosen to undertake various methods of exposing themselves to the public eye.
Chen appeared inclined to agree, particularly because Thomson Reuters does not use the database for journalistic purposes. Instead, it wants to sell subscriptions to private individuals.
“Thomson Reuters is not a journalist performing a “public benefit” by making plaintiffs’ personal information available to the public,” the judge wrote. “Rather, the company’s dissemination of this information only benefits the private parties who purchase the CLEAR dossiers.”
Plaintiffs Cat Brooks and Rasheed Shabazz claim that Thomson Reuters has gathered their personal information into a database and then sells subscriptions to that database without their permission.
Brooks and Shabazz say a composite of their identities are included in the database without their permission and the company uses their identities to help drive profits.
“Information is being collected without consent and used to define and make clear the identity of the individuals and provide third parties who pay for this information secretly,” their attorney Andre Mura, of Gibbs Law Group, said during a recent hearing.
Thomson Reuters maintains there is a public benefit to the publication of the information.
Chen did dismiss a right of publicity claim, saying Thomson Reuters was not using the likeness of the plaintiffs in an effort to advertise or profit from their personas.
“The injury plaintiffs suffered here — although deeply concerning and perhaps a violation of their privacy — is not a violation of their right of publicity because their name or likeness is not being 'appropriated' and used to advertise a separate product or service,” the judge wrote.
Thomson Reuters declined to comment for this article.
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