London - They are one of the small annoyances of modern office life - invitations to join LinkedIn from people you have no memory of knowing.
But now these mystery invitations are at the centre of a class-action lawsuit in the US, with the social network for professionals facing claims that it “hacks” into the email address books of its members to find new targets for spam marketing emails.
LinkedIn, which claims more than 225 million users who access the service to share career updates, rejects the claims, made in a law suit filed in California on behalf of four US-based users, who are seeking unspecified damages from the company for running a “hack-and-spam” operation.
The suit claims that LinkedIn “hacks” into users' email accounts before harvesting email addresses and sending spam to their contacts, endorsing its products and services, without obtaining users' consent or requesting a password.
The plaintiffs allege that the emails, designed to persuade recipients to sign up to LinkedIn, contain the Linkedln member's name and likeness so it appears as if the member is endorsing the social network.
The lawsuit alleges that users' details were obtained “surreptitiously” and seeks redress for violation of federal wiretap law as well as California privacy laws.
A LinkedIn user, Deborah Lagutaris, told Bloomberg that more than 3 000 of her contacts received invitations from LinkedIn in her user name.
LinkedIn asks for permission to “grow” each user's network. The overall rate of membership growth is slowing and the business needs to sell new products to maintain its expansion. But the widespread use of email invitations goes too far, the plaintiffs in the case have said.
The complainants have asked the company to pay them the money that it earned by using their LinkedIn accounts.
LinkedIn users can invite anyone to become a connection. But if the invitee replies “I don't know” or “Spam”, this is recorded against the inviter, whose account may be restricted or closed.
LinkedIn is contesting the lawsuit, which it argues is “without merit”. The California-based company said it takes personal security seriously and never sends out information on a user's behalf unless given permission.
Blake Lawit, LinkedIn's head of litigation, wrote in a blog that members “choose to upload their email address books to LinkedIn”.
“Claims that we 'hack' or 'break into' members' accounts are false,” Mr Lawit wrote. “We never deceive you by 'pretending to be you' in order to access your email account.
“We never send messages or invitations to join LinkedIn on your behalf to anyone unless you have given us permission to do so,” he adds.
The company boasted a commitment to being “transparent about how we protect and utilise our members' data.”
Last year LinkedIn users complained that they were being bombarded by spam emails after the social network was hacked and hashed passwords of users dumped online.
Launched in 2003, LinkedIn is valued at about $20bn, making it one of the biggest US technology companies. Analysts on average expect revenue of $1.5bn in 2013. - The Independent