Did the Warriors Commit a Flagrant Privacy Foul?

Paul Gaus, MJLST Staffer

Fans of the National Basketball Association (NBA) know the Golden State Warriors for the team’s offensive exploits on the hardwood. The Warriors boast the NBA’s top offense at nearly 120 points per game. However, earlier this year, events in a different type of court prompted the Warriors to play some defense. On August 29, 2016, a class action suit filed in the Northern District of California alleged the Warriors, along with co-defendants Sonic Notify Inc. and Yinzcam, Inc., violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (18 U.S.C. §§ 2510, et. seq.).

Satchell v. Sonic Notify, Inc. et al, focuses on the team’s mobile app. The Warriors partnered with the two other co-defendants to create an app based on beacon technology. The problem, as put forth in the complaint, is that the beacon technology the co-defendants employed mined the plaintiff’s microphone embedded in the smartphone to listen for nearby beacons. The complaint alleges this enabled the Warriors to access the plaintiff’s conversation without her consent.

The use of beacon technology is heralded in the business world as a revolutionary mechanism to connect consumers to the products they seek. Retailers, major sports organizations, and airlines regularly use beacons to connect with consumers. However, traditional beacon technology is based on Bluetooth. According to the InfoSec Institute, mobile apps send out signals and gather data on the basis of Bluetooth signals received. This enables targeted advertising on smartphones.

However, the complaint in Satchell maintains the defendants relied on a different kind of beacon technology: audio beacon technology. In contrast to Bluetooth beacon technology, audio beacon technology relies on sounds. For functionality, audio beacons must continuously listen for audio signals through the smartphone user’s microphone. Therefore, the Warriors app permitted the co-defendants to listen to the plaintiff’s private conversations on her smartphone – violating the plaintiff’s reasonable expectation of privacy.

While the Warriors continue to rack up wins on the court, Satchell has yet to tip off. As of December 5, 2016, the matter remains in the summary judgment phase.

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