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FindLaw columnist Eric Sinrod writes regularly in this section on legal developments surrounding technology and the Internet.
Many college students likely would covet an internship at Facebook. One Harvard University student landed such an internship. However, he says that the internship offer to him was rescinded by Facebook because he reportedly exposed privacy flaws in Facebook's mobile messenger. Is that correct or not, and what lesson has been learned?
Harvard student, Aran Khanna, launched a browser application from his dorm room. The app revealed that Facebook Messenger users were able to precisely pinpoint the geographic locations of people with whom they were communicating, as reported by The Guardian.
Khanna's app is called "Marauder's Map" as a tribute to Harry Potter books. Khanna reportedly stated that he developed the app to demonstrate the results of unintentionally sharing data, and as such, he believed he was acting in the public interest. The app was launched several months ago, and approximately 85,000 people have downloaded the app already.
Soon after Khanna's app went live, Facebook reportedly requested that Khanna disable the app. One week later, Facebook reportedly distributed a Messenger app to address the problem.
So, Facebook views Khanna as a hero, right? No, not exactly. Facebook does not necessarily subscribe to Khanna's reported version of events.
First, a Facebook spokesman reported that Facebook had been working on a Messenger update for months before Facebook even was aware of Khanna's app. Indeed, the Facebook spokesman reportely stated that this "isn't the sort of thing that can happen in a week."
But there is more. Only hours in advance of Khanna beginning his internship, he reportedly was informed by Facebook that his internship offer had been rescinded. Why? Because Facebook believes that Khanna had breached the Facebook user agreement by allegedly scraping data from the Facebook site.
So, we have a classic "he says, Facebook says."
Apparently, Khanna has not suffered much, if at all, as a result of the Facebook offer having been rescinded. Indeed, he ended up spending his summer as an intern at a Silicon Valley startup. Moreover, he wrote about this experience for the Harvard Journal of Technology and Science.
And Khanna reportedly has stated that his dealings with Facebook were a "learning experience."
Perhaps Khanna learned that while his intentions may have been positive, and while maybe he even helped to shine light on a possible privacy flaw, he and others need to be careful about how they obtain data. It is important not to violate user agreements even in the quest to do the right thing.
Eric Sinrod (@EricSinrod on Twitter) is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP, where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. You can read his professional biography here. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod's columns, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org with Subscribe in the Subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's law firm or its individual partners.