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Privacy & Data

Narrow Supreme Court Ruling in Spokeo Case Leaves Many Questions

The US Supreme Court ruled narrowly today in Spokeo v. Robins 6-2 in favor of Spokeo — a potential setback for the privacy rights of all internet users. The case addressed whether Thomas Robins has standing to sue Spokeo under the Fair Credit Reporting Act for returning inaccurate information about him through Spokeo’s “people search engine.”

“While we are disappointed in today’s ruling, the Court has preserved the ability of citizens to protect their privacy rights under federal law. The Court definitively recognized that intangible injuries, like those that implicate privacy rights, can be protected by private parties in federal court, which is a positive result. In practical terms, this is a punt — one that privacy advocates will likely debate for the foreseeable future,” said G.S. Hans, Policy Counsel.

Spokeo’s search engine conducts searches in a variety of databases, and provides a summary of information about the person who was the subject of the search. However, the information gathered by Spokeo is not verified as accurate, and no notice or opportunity to correct the information is provided to the impacted individuals. In this case, Spokeo performed a search on Thomas Robins; Robins believes the inaccurate information contained in his report may have negatively impacted his search for a new job.

In a narrow opinion, the Court stated that Congress can create standing for intangible harms. However, it also found that the Ninth Circuit’s ruling failed to properly address standing requirements, and that a bare violation without any additional harm does not provide standing. CDT’s amicus brief, joined by EFF, OTI, and the World Privacy Forum, was cited by Justice Ginsburg’s dissent. The Court has sent this case back to the Ninth Circuit to re-evaluate Robins’ claim under a more specific test, which other courts must now also follow.

“Unfortunately, the Court has validated a narrow version of privacy rights in its opinion. The majority implies that Robins’ rights weren’t violated here, but we disagree — as does Justice Ginsburg when she cites our analysis describing how Spokeo’s actions could have negatively affected Robins. In the digital age, a broad view of privacy rights is necessary to protect individuals. We hope that courts take a careful look at future cases and demonstrate an understanding that privacy rights can be harmed in many ways,” Hans added.