Has Twitter been "eavesdropping" on users' Direct Messages?

According to a new class action lawsuit brought against Twitter by Twitter user Wilford Raney, the answer is yes. The California federal court complaint alleges that Twitter not only "surreptitiously eavesdrops" on Direct Messages without users' consent, but also profits from its spying.

Raney has sent and received hundreds of Direct Messages on the microblogging site, believing that they were private missives based on statements from the site that "Direct Messages are the private side of Twitter," the complaint alleged.

But in his new suit, he claimed that Twitter's system actually opens, scans and potentially alters a Direct Message before it delivers the message to the intended recipient. The complaint illustrates the scanning practice by noting how Twitter alters the contents of Direct Messages that include hyperlinks. According to the complaint, if a hyperlink is found in a Direct Message, Twitter replaces the link with its own referral link that will first direct the recipient to Twitter and then on to the eventual destination. "For example, Twitter changes links like 'www.nytimes.com' to links like 'http:/t.co/CL2SKBxr1s' (while still displaying the text 'www.nytimes.com' to its users)," the complaint alleged.

This route diversion proves "immensely" beneficial for the website, according to the lawsuit. In the above example, "the New York Times would identify Twitter as the source of internet traffic, whereas without replacing the link the source would be anonymous. The end result is that Twitter can negotiate better advertising rates," Raney said.

Because Twitter never obtained—or even requested—users' consent to read the content of their direct messages, the complaint states causes of action under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the California Invasion of Privacy Act, seeks a halt to the allegedly unlawful interceptions, and requests the award of statutory damages of $5,000 per class member.

To read the complaint in Raney v. Twitter, Inc., click here.

Why it matters: Similar suits are currently pending against Google andYahoo by those without Gmail and Yahoo accounts for allegedly intercepting messages and monetizing the contents via advertising. An earlier lawsuit brought by Gmail users settled in 2014.