A new class action lawsuit accuses Zillow of digitally “looking over the shoulder” of the people who visit its website, and argues that the company is violating wiretapping laws.
Two consumers, Natalie Perkins and Kenneth Hassan, filed the suit Monday in federal court in Washington, where Zillow is headquartered. The complaint alleges that Zillow deploys computer code that allows it to record a consumer’s interaction with its website then create a video reconstruction of those interactions. This amounts to a “an invasion of the privacy rights of website visitors,” and violates a Washington wiretapping law, according to the complaint.
The suit also claims that recording consumers’ online interactions “results in the electronic equivalent of ‘looking over the shoulder’ of each visitor to the Zillow website for the entire duration of their website interaction.” At another point in the complaint, it describes the “Session Replay Code” used to record consumers’ activity as being deployed “clandestinely.”
“While Session Replay Code is utilized by websites for some legitimate purposes, it goes well beyond normal website analytics when it comes to collecting the actual contents of communications between website visitors and websites,” the suit claims.
Asked about the suit, a Zillow spokesperson told Inman the company “takes the privacy and security of users’ information very seriously.”
The lawsuit also names Microsoft as a defendant. That’s because, according to the suit, Zillow contracts with the computer giant and other providers to embed the code that records consumers engagement with the website.
Later, the suit also claims that users have an expectation of privacy. However, Session Replay Code can track “all mouse movements, clicks, scrolls, zooms, window resizes, keystrokes, text entry, and numerous other forms of a user’s navigation and interaction through the website.”
While consumer privacy is a primary concern of the suit, it also suggests that deploying code to record consumer interactions with a website can expose people to the possibility of identity theft.
Though the lawsuit is new, the issues it focuses on have recently been raised in a number of other cases — all of which hint at a simmering philosophical conflict over the nature of the internet and electronic commerce. Earlier this month, for example, a man named Jamie Huber sued Zillow in federal court in Pennsylvania for using replay code technology. The case closely resembles the new Washington suit and centers on alleged violations of wiretapping laws.
Huber also sued hardware retailer Lowe’s and travel giant Expedia for the same things, indicating that the use of replay code — and the questions it raises about ecommerce — are widespread and not limited to Zillow alone.
But there are even more law suits than that.
Also earlier this month, another man, Ryan Margulis, sued Zillow in Illinois federal court for using session replay technology. And at the same time, yet another person, Ashley Popa, sued Zillow in Pennyslvania for the same thing.
Several of the lawsuits are being handled by the same teams of attorneys.
The deluge of cases hints a how important internet user data has become for large companies, as well as how far data collection has evolved. Indeed, even as it accuses Zillow of privacy violations, the latest suit from Washington acknowledges that customer data “is critically important to a business’s success.”
Most consumers likely have a basic understanding that their data is being collected from websites; people who have Googled a new pair of shoes and then discovered every ad they see now features those same shoes has learned about data collection in real time. But these suits nevertheless argue that consumers are wary about how their data is being used, and unaware that the entirety of their interactions with a site might be recorded and reconstructed in a video.
Ultimately the various suits request jury trials.
It remains to be seen how they might play out, if they might end in settlements, and if they might succeed in somehow curtailing the use of session replay technology. But if any or all of the suits prevail, they could ultimately reshape how large technology companies gauge their audience’s engagement with their products.
Read the complaint from the latest case here: