Austin’s Other Event: A Class Action, Mobile App Privacy Lawsuit Filed Against Facebook, Twitter, Apple, 15 Others

It was bound to happen sooner or later, but it looks like all the heated conversation we’ve seen over user privacy in mobile apps has now finally boiled over into a class action lawsuit, filed this week in the Western Division of the U.S. District Court, Austin Division.

A list of 13 plaintiffs, acting “on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated,” have filed a suit against a series of high-profile companies that make some of the most popular mobile apps around today. The list names 18 companies in all: Path,  Twitter, Apple, Facebook, Beluga, Yelp!, Burbn, Instagram, Foursquare, Gowalla, Foodspotting, Hipster, LinkedIn, Rovio, ZeptoLab, Chillingo, Electronic  Arts and Kik  Interactive. Coincidentally, the suit was filed on Monday, the same day that Yahoo filed a patent infringement suit against Facebook.

And it looks like the lawyers representing the plaintiffs — the Austin firms of Edwards Law, Carl F. Schwenker, and the Jordan Law Firm — appear to have filed this week in an attempt at maximum effect: the suit was made public right in the middle of the SXSW interactive event that brings upwards of 20,000 tech types to the city, including those from the companies named in the suit, and of course exactly the kind of people who use these apps regularly.

Some of the defendant list seems to be intentionally doubling up actions: for example, Gowalla is now owned by Facebook; and Burbn is the developer behind Instagram.

The suit’s intention is summed up in a quote that kicks off the 152-page complaint: “Don’t take things that aren’t yours,” from Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten. It goes on to describe “surreptitious” gathering of information about users of mobile apps made by these companies, and the need to prevent this from continuing to happen.

Apple, meanwhile, is named because it facilitated the passage of this information from users to apps. Although Amazon and its Appstore and Google are also described in the text of the suit, they are not named as defendants at this point.

To be clear, there have not yet been any proven cases of how this data is actually getting used for anything other than what the apps have been designed to do: whether it is to link up users with their friends in the case of social features; or give a users’ location in the case of location-based apps. Some believe that it could be used for commercial purposes not intended by the user of the app in question.

There have already been some cases of the app makers, such as Path, apologizing for the problems people have found with the aspect of their app that shares data, and trying to explain better how and why it works the way that it does.

But if the defendants are found to have acted wrongly, the payouts could be big:

The named plaintiffs — most of whom reside in Austin — do not specify an exact amount of damages but if this suit progresses and actually goes to court, and if more pile into it, could run into very high sums: the lawyers name a list of basic damages around privacy violations and out-of-pocket expenses, but also statutory  damages that run into the tens of thousands of dollars for each individual violation; $1,000 for theft of address book data; and treble damages for intentional wrongdoing.

We are contacting the defendants for their response.

Here’s the full suit filed on March 12: