Though one tech financier calls Jay Edelson “a leech tarted up as a freedom fighter,” the Chicago class-action lawyer has had an impact on the privacy issues that the Internet has made so pervasive.
When technology executives imagine the boogeyman, they see a baby-face guy in wire-rim glasses. His name is Jay Edelson.
Edelson, 42, is a class-action lawyer. He is also, if not the most hated person in Silicon Valley, very close to it. His firm, Edelson PC, specializes in suing technology companies, claiming privacy violations. He has gone after pretty much every tech company you have heard of — Amazon, Apple, Google — as well as many that you have not. His cases read like a time capsule of the last decade, charting how computers have been steadfastly logging data about our searches, our friends, our bodies.
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, Calif.
Education: B.A. in philosophy, Brandeis University, 1994; J.D., University of Michigan Law School, 1997
Quote: “What I used to say at the beginning was that the only company I wouldn’t sue is Dr Pepper. I really like Dr Pepper.”
Source: NYT, LinkedIn
If you have ever wondered how Facebook is able to automatically name your friends in pictures you have uploaded to the social network, then you may be interested in a lawsuit Edelson recently filed. That one contends Facebook has “secretly amassed the world’s largest privately held database of consumer biometrics data.”
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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.”
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.
Edelson may make his living suing tech companies, but he is breathless in his admiration for Silicon Valley culture and products.
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 analyzes 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.
Edelson’s suit 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.
There is no good data on how many cases have been brought claiming privacy violations by tech companies, but lawyers say the practice is escalating with the growth of social media and mobile phones, which are tracking people virtually all of the time. A recent legal treatise by Ian Ballon, a lawyer at Greenberg Traurig’s Silicon Valley office, describes “an explosion” in class action suits related to data privacy. Defense firms are bolstering their privacy practices in response.
“It’s out there and it’s growing,” said Ted Frank, who runs the Center for Class Action Fairness, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., that represents consumers unhappy with class-action settlements.
The FTC has stepped up its enforcement of privacy violations, and legislators like Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., are pushing for laws that would give people more control over the ways Internet companies use their data. But Edelson says the biggest lift to the kind of data-privacy litigation he does came from Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked documents about government spying. Those revelations have, in his opinion, made judges much more sympathetic to privacy plaintiffs.
“Before, we would to go court and judges would just scoff at us,” he said. “Now they seem eager to listen to us and find ways to help us.”
Class-action lawyers, like Wall Street short-sellers, tend to justify their actions with high-minded morality, but they are often reviled as glorified extortionists.
“If we didn’t allow class actions, we would be in a much worse world,” said Michael Klausner, a professor at Stanford Law School. “The problem is they can also be abusive.”
In defending his tactics, Edelson echoes a long-running defense of class-action law. He says he is acting like a sort of private attorney general, forcing companies to change their worst behaviors. The critical view is that lawyers like him make millions while recovering almost nothing for the people they represent.
“Everyone always has a story about getting a check from a class action for 15 cents,” said Christopher Dore, an Edelson partner. Dore said he had made peace with people questioning his profession.
“The funniest thing is you talk about it in the abstract, and people have one reaction,” he said, “but then you give them specific examples, like I’ll explain a case or something to them, and they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s really messed up. You should definitely sue them.’ ”