Several Google Chrome extensions entice users by promising cash or gift voucher rewards. However, not all have good intentions. Facebook has recently found out that two extensions UpVoice and Ads Feed with thousands of installs were actually secretly harvesting data from its platforms. The tech giant has sued the makers of the two extensions for abusing its platforms.
Facebook in the lawsuit accused the developers of the two extensions — BrandTotal and Unimania — of malicious intent. While BrandTotal's UpVoice offered payments such as gift cards to install the extensions, the intention was to harvest users' data from Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and YouTube profiles as per the lawsuit. Ads Feed also scraped user data from those profiles.
As per Facebook, BrandTotal and Unimania claimed that users who installed the extensions would become panelists who could impact the "marketing decisions and brand strategies of multi-billion dollar corporations."
According to court documents, those two extensions used automated programs to scrape data from user profiles including name, date of birth, gender, user ID, relationship status and location. They also scraped advertising metrics including image and text f the ads, user interaction and reactions and name of the advertisers besides ad preferences including interest information. Facebook said that the developers of the extensions were not authorized to collect such data and sold the data as "market intelligence" by repackaging them.
"In order to evade our protections against scraping, these companies exploited our users' access to our service through a set of browser extensions called "UpVoice" and "Ads Feed" designed to access and collect data," said Jessica Romero, Facebook's Director of Platform Enforcement and Litigation in a blog post.
In addition, Facebook said that both companies are actually the same with different names. BrandTotal is an Israeli company with a subsidiary in Delaware (the U.S.) while Unimania is a Delaware-based company. The reason why Facebook believes both companies are the same is due to the nature of the business and identical code to harvest user data. Both extensions also sent scraped data to the same remote server.
"Defendants shared common employees and agents. For example, BrandTotal's Chief Product Officer and General Manager created Facebook accounts in the name of Unimania and the Ads Feed extension. BrandTotal's Chief Technology Officer and co-founder also administered Unimania accounts on Facebook," the court documents read.
Facebook has urged the judge to issue a permanent injunction that would prohibit both the companies from accessing Facebook and Instagram user data. It has also asked for compensatory damages and block them from developing such extensions in the future.
Facebook has deleted profiles and apps of both UpVoice and Ads Feed on its platform while Google has also removed the extensions from Chrome's web store.
Lessons from Cambridge Analytica
Since Cambridge Analytica harvested data from millions of Facebook profiles to target undecided voters during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, Mark Zuckerberg founded company has been vigilant against scrappers. Although Facebook had to pay a small fine of $643,000 for its role in Cambridge Analytica in Brexit, the company had seen massive backlashes from users. That led to many lawsuits and Facebook had to pay huge fines for failing to protect users' privacy.
Since then, Facebook has sought legal action against any third-party developers that scrape data without Facebook's explicit permission. Last year, Facebook sued two Ukrainian developers for scrapping data through quiz apps on Facebook and browser extensions. Facebook won the case. Another case against Stackla on similar grounds also favored the social media giant.