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The Lawyer Taking On Silicon Valley’s Big Guns

Taking on the big guns in Silicon Valley – some of the most powerful businessmen and women in the world – is not necessarily for everyone.

But for class action litigator Jay Edelson they are the people he has in his sights, having sued all the big names from “A” (Amazon and Apple) to “G” (you know who) and now Facebook are in his sights for a major privacy violation lawsuit. He’ll get to the rest of the alphabet one day soon, no doubt.

So who is Jay Edelson, the 42 year old lawyer who is fixated on how these companies are using technology to generate databanks of information about you.

The NY Times reports:

Remember when companies started clogging your phone with text messages? Edelson sued dozens of them for that. Have you ever searched for yourself online and found that some of the stuff about you is wrong? This is the basis of a lawsuit against Spokeo, a search engine based in Pasadena, California.

If you have ever wondered how Facebook is able to automatically name your friends in pictures that you have uploaded to the social network, then you may be interested in a lawsuit Edelson filed Wednesday. That one contends that Facebook has “secretly amassed the world’s largest privately held database of consumer biometrics data.”

Edelson is full of self-deprecating comments about how he is “not technologically savvy at all” and that his move into privacy law was “a total accident.” Nevertheless, his firm, which is based in Chicago, has become one of the most prolific filers of privacy class actions, a growing legal area that tech companies describe with a litany of unprintable terms. Asked to sum up the tech community’s feelings about Edelson, Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, a technology incubator that invests in very young companies, said the lawyer was regarded as “a leech tarted up as a freedom fighter.”

But Edelson PC is a law firm that also has the feel of a startup – complete with pool table, too.

Edelson PC is on the 13th floor of a high-rise building that looks over the Chicago River. The building’s lobby is full of people in suits, but the firm has the playful feel of a startup. Lawyers – there are 20 of them – wear hoodies emblazoned with the Edelson logo, and their offices are labeled with old circuit boards mounted beside the doors.

The startup motifs are by design. Edelson may make his living suing tech companies, but he is breathless in his admiration for Silicon Valley culture and products. His office is decorated with images of Grumpy Cat, the famous Internet feline known for its morose-looking mouth, and he described the iPhone 6 Plus as “my favorite thing on earth.”

“He wants to be perceived as running a tech firm, but since he’s not a tech guy, the closest he will come is a law firm,” said Scott A. Kamber, a rival class-action lawyer who was Edelson’s partner before they amicably split.

Another way in which he is similar to a startup founder is that he does not like to talk about money, except when he is talking about not being motivated by money.

“Money doesn’t mean a ton,” Edelson said during an interview at the Four Seasons hotel in San Francisco, wearing a watch whose face was loaded with diamond flecks.

The firm started suing technology companies in the early 2000s, before data privacy was a national debate. Edelson claims to have won more than $1 billion in settlements, a number that is difficult to confirm because many of those agreements are private. Today he views these cases the same way Apple views its collection of iPhones and other iThings: as a line of products to be refined, repackaged and resold. Text messages are a product line. Online video is a product line.

“When we go after a dozen big companies and win,” he said, “the trickle-down effect is so much larger than if it’s perceived as a one-off suit.”

On a snowy day in February, Edelson’s team was laying the groundwork for the recent Facebook suit, which they hope will create a new line of cases centered on biometric information. Given the explosion of “wearable” technologies, along with voice and face recognition software, this could be a lucrative area.

“We’re really eager to test it out,” Edelson said.

The Facebook case concerns a feature that analyses users’ photos and then suggests names to go with the faces in the picture from the users’ lists of friends. When it was introduced in 2010, bloggers regarded it, like pretty much every new technology, as incredibly useful but also a little creepy.

In the suit filed Wednesday, Edelson asserts that the social network violated an Illinois law, called the Biometric Information Privacy Act, by storing images of its users’ faces without telling them or obtaining their permission and neglecting to say how long it planned to keep them.

“This lawsuit is without merit, and we will defend ourselves vigorously,” a Facebook spokeswoman said in an emailed statement. She noted that the face-tagging feature could be turned off, at which point the data used to suggest tags to other people is deleted.

The idea came from Edelson’s investigative team, which consists of three lawyers and a computer analyst. The group’s job, to put it plainly, is to find ways to sue companies, and a few months ago the firm started looking into laws that regulate biometric data. This was inspired, in part, by a call to the firm by someone who was leery of cameras and wanted to know if wearing a mask in public was legal.

“He wanted to wear a mask at all times,” recalled David Mindell, an associate at the firm.

Source: The NY Times
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