In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court late last week barred the courthouse door to thousands of people who were wrongly marked as “potential terrorists” by credit giant TransUnion. The Court’s analysis of their “standing” —whether they were sufficiently injured to file a lawsuit—reflects a naïve view of the increasingly powerful role that personal data, and the private corporations that harvest and monetize it, play in everyday life. It also threatens Congressional efforts to protect our privacy and other intangible rights from predation by Facebook, Google and other tech giants.
Earlier this year, we filed an amicus brief, with our co-counsel at Hausfeld LLP, asking the Court to let all of the victims of corporate data abuses have their day in court.
What Did the Court Do?
TransUnion wrongly and negligently labelled approximately 8,000 people as potential terrorists in its databases. It also made that dangerous information available to businesses across the nation for purposes of making credit, employment, and other decisions. TransUnion then failed to provide the required statutory notice of the mistake. The Supreme Court held this was not a sufficiently “concrete” injury to allow these people to sue TransUnion in federal court for violating their privacy rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Instead, the Court granted standing only to the approximately 1,800 of these people whose information was actually transmitted to third parties.
The majority opinion, written by Justice Kavanaugh, fails to grapple with how consumer data is collected, analyzed, and used in modern society. It likened the gross negligence resulting in a database marking these people as terrorists to “a letter in a drawer that is never sent.” But the ongoing technological revolution is not at all like a single letter. It involves large and often interconnected set of corporate databases that collect and hold a huge amount of our personal information—both by us and about us. Those information stores are then used to create inferences and analysis that carry tremendous and often new risks for us that can be difficult to even understand, much less trace. For example, consumers who are denied a mortgage, a job, or another life-altering opportunity based upon bad records in a database or inferences based upon those records will often be unable to track the harm back to the wrongdoing data broker. In fact, figuring out how decisions were made, much less finding the wrongdoer, has become increasingly difficult as an opaque archipelago of databases are linked and used to build and deploy machine learning systems that judge us and limit our opportunities.