Meta sues Voyager Labs, saying it created fake accounts to scrape user data

Key Points
  • Meta alleged that the startup Voyager Labs was improperly creating fake accounts and scaping user data.
  • The lawsuit follows a similar, recently settled case between LinkedIn and enterprise startup hiQ over data scraping allegations.
  • In Sep, 2022, Meta settled with the companies BrandTotal and Unimania, which agreed to be permanent banned from "using and scraping Facebook and Instagram."

In this article

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer of Meta Platforms Inc., left, arrives at federal court in San Jose, California, US, on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022. 
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Meta filed a complaint against Voyager Labs on Thursday, alleging that the startup created fake Facebook accounts as part of a scheme to collect information from real Facebook users, which it then used for its own business purposes.

Voyager Labs specializes in investigative software and services intended to help law enforcement and companies obtain information about suspects, among other uses. Meta alleged that Voyager Labs' software was powered by data that it improperly gathered from Facebook and Instagram in addition to other sites like Twitter, YouTube, Twitter, and Telegram.

According to the filing in the District Court for the Northern District of California, Meta alleged that Voyager Labs created over 38,000 fake Facebook user accounts. These helped the startup scrape publicly posted information from more than 600,000 other Facebook users, including things like posts, likes, photos, and lists of friends. "Scraping" generally refers to the automated process of using software to scan a web page and compile information on it.

Meta attorneys wrote in the legal filing that the company sent a letter to Voyager Labs on November 11 demanding that the startup stop violating the company's terms of service. Meta eventually disabled over 60,000 Voyager Labs-related Facebook and Instagram accounts and pages, which also included at least 38,000 fake accounts, the attorneys said.

"Defendant's conduct was not authorized by Meta and violates Facebook's and Instagram's terms, as well as California law," the complaint said. "Accordingly, Meta seeks damages and injunctive relief to stop Defendant's use of its platforms and services."

The company also asking the court to force Voyager Labs to give up its "ill-gotten profits in an amount to be proven at trial."

CNBC reached out to Voyager Labs for comment.

Meta's complaint follows a similar a data-scraping court case involving LinkedIn and the enterprise startup hiQ, which the Microsoft-owned social network alleged was scraping user data to fuel its human resources software.

After a years-long legal battle, LinkedIn and hiQ eventually settled in December, 2022 with a $500,000 judgment entered against hiQ, following a mixed ruling in a California district court in November. Similar to Meta, LinkedIn alleged that hiQ was violating the company's terms of service over data scraping.

That case caught the attention of privacy advocates and researchers who were concerned that the outcome could potentially harm the work of journalists and watchdog groups who use automation software to monitor public websites and hold companies accountable.

Meta's claims against Voyager Labs follows similar actions the social networking giant has taken against other companies it alleged to be scraping user data.

For instance, in Sep, 2022, Meta settled with the companies BrandTotal and Unimania, which agreed to be stop "using and scraping Facebook and Instagram," Meta said in another blog post.

Meta's various legal actions to improve data privacy come after the company's infamous Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018, in which a political consulting firm improperly obtained user profile data through various methods (not scraping).