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iPhone camera and iOS 14 at crux of Facebook & Instagram spying lawsuit

Credit: Solen Feyissa

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Facebook allegedly spied on Instagram users through unauthorized use of iPhone cameras, a new lawsuit claims.

Back in July, an iOS 14 privacy feature revealed that Instagram appeared to be activating the iPhone camera and microphone even when they weren't in use. The specific feature was an indicator dot that showed up when the camera wasn't active, such as when a user was scrolling the feeds.

At the time, Facebook said that the behavior was unintentional and caused by a bug that was quickly fixed. In the complaint, lodged Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, plaintiff Brittany Conditi contends that it wasn't.

"Instagram is constantly accessing users' smartphone camera feature while the app is open and monitors users without permission, i.e., when users are not interacting with Instagram's camera feature," the lawsuit alleges.

The complaint contends that Facebook is surveilling users to collect "lucrative and valuable data on its users that it would not otherwise have access to."

That alleged spying, it continues, allowed Facebook to "monitor users' most intimate moments, including those in the privacy of their own homes, in addition to collecting valuable insight and market research on its users."

"Defendants abused their ability to access users' smartphone cameras, and committed egregious privacy violations, for one specific reason: to increase their advertising revenue. By obtaining extremely private and intimate personal data on their users, including in the privacy of their own home, Defendants are able to target users more than ever before," the complaint reads.

The lawsuit also specifically notes that iOS 14 is a "game-changer" for privacy, since it allows users to "see exactly how companies access and use their personal information" and which apps are currently using the camera or microphone. It also brings up past alleged privacy blunders from TikTok and LinkedIn that were exposed by the Apple operating system update.

In response to the July media reports, Facebook said that it doesn't surreptitiously activate either the camera or microphone.

"We only access your camera when you tell us to — for example, when you swipe from Feed to Camera. We found and are fixing a bug in iOS 14 Beta that mistakenly indicates that some people are using the camera when they aren't," Facebook said. "We do not access your camera in those instances, and no content is recorded."

Facebook has not publicly commented on the allegations.

The complaint alleges that Facebook broke wiretapping and two-party consent laws in California, and claims that its failure to disclose its data collection practices constitutes a violation of the California Consumer Privacy Act. It seeks class status, as well as damages, legal costs, and a finding that Facebook's alleged behavior was unlawful.