It is important for consumers who interact with businesses online to have a solid understanding of the California Invasion of Privacy Act (CIPA) and website wiretapping. When you have a conversation with someone on the phone or via the computer, there is usually a reasonable expectation that the conversation will remain between the two parties. But what happens when what you believed to be a private conversation was actually being wiretapped, surveilled, and/or recorded by the other party? If this happens in the context of a business transaction, sales call, or online chat, your information could be sold to other companies that profit from the data. This has become a very serious problem in the internet era when personal data can be transmitted and circulated at a rapid pace. It’s one reason that California consumer privacy laws like the CIPA have become so important as tools to protect consumers against unethical business practices.
To learn more about the consumer protections against website wiretapping afforded by the California Invasion of Privacy Act, keep reading this blog.
What Is Website Wiretapping?
Wiretapping is a term used to describe the act of connecting a listening or recording device to a telephone. Website wiretapping occurs when the chat communications on a website are unlawfully recorded, transcribed, or surveilled without permission. These days, wiretapping technology is commonly used to secretly record conversations on websites that were supposed to remain private. Some of the reasons that people might illegally wiretap a website chat include gaining information about a business competitor, learning the details of an opponent’s lawsuit, or acquiring valuable data about a customer that can be sold to others.
Illegal wiretaps are not just against the law; they can also cause significant harm to victims. That’s why California allows individuals to file civil lawsuits against anyone who records their online conversation without consent.
California’s Law on Website Wiretapping: Section 631 of the CIPA
California has a number of very strong consumer protection laws that prohibit companies from jeopardizing the digital privacy and security of customers. Any company that does business in California needs to be completely transparent in their data collection practices, which includes obtaining proper consent from customers and website visitors before any personal information is shared online.
For example, California courts have held that it is a violation of California’s Invasion of Privacy Act (CIPA) for companies to wiretap user chats and other communications on websites. It is specifically a violation of § 631(a) of the CIPA when the intercepted communications contain what might be considered more sensitive than “record information” such as the user’s name, address, email, etc.
Additionally, Section 631 of the CIPA gives consumers a legal right to know when their phone conversation is being recorded, or when their online chat conversation is being monitored and transcribed. That is why a lot of companies provide automated warnings at the beginning of calls to alert customers to the possibility that the call may be monitored or recorded, and privacy policies on websites that disclose the monitoring of website chat communications with session recording technology.
Wiretapping on Websites:
Customers have a reasonable expectation of privacy when they visit a company’s website and use the chat feature. Their privacy rights are violated when a company wiretaps the online conversations, and they are further violated when that company allows third-party entities to eavesdrop on the chat conversations.
In recent years, many companies doing business online have been accused of breaching the privacy of individuals who visit their websites. When those websites are accessible to customers in California, the companies may be violating California’s very robust consumer privacy laws. Companies violate the California Invasion of Privacy Act (CIPA) by illegally wiretapping the conversations of website visitors.
Winning a CIPA Claim for Illegal Wiretapping
The simple fact is that a lot of businesses fail to provide clear warnings about the nature of phone conversations, online chats, or other communications with customers. When a business secretly monitors or records a conversation, the customer whose privacy rights were violated by the illegal wiretapping may be able to take legal action by filing a CIPA claim.
One element of a successful CIPA claim that the plaintiff will need to prove is that they had a reasonable expectation of privacy. Generally, the content and circumstances of the conversation can be used to determine whether such an expectation existed. This is where the court will examine a number of case-specific factors, including:
- The identity of the person who initiated the conversation.
- The purpose of the communication.
- The duration of the conversation.
- Whether there were prior conversations between the parties.
- The type of information that was communicated.
- Whether the party recording the conversation provided a warning.
Section 632(c) of the CIPA clarifies that when the parties to a communication reasonably expect to be overheard or recorded, it does not qualify as a “confidential communication” under the law.
Civil Remedies Available to Consumers Under the CIPA
As mentioned above, the CIPA includes both civil and criminal penalties for companies that violate the statute by unlawfully accessing, maintaining, or sharing customer data. For consumers who have been victimized, the civil penalties can be a valuable tool to get some sort of justice. The CIPA allows consumers to file civil lawsuits in California state court to recover damages of up to $5,000 for each invasion of privacy violation. Additionally, in some cases, the court may order the defendant to pay treble damages that total three (3) times the economic harm suffered by the consumer.
Criminal Penalties for Wiretapping in California
Violations of the wiretapping law can also result in criminal penalties. On the criminal side, the CIPA gives courts the ability to impose penalties such as monetary fines and even jail time. A person charged with a crime for monitoring and recording a private communication could be sentenced to up to three (3) years in the county jail.
The decision about whether to bring criminal charges against a business or individual for breaching your privacy rights by recording a conversation will ultimately be made by prosecutors and other law enforcement authorities. If charges are filed against the defendant, the case will be heard in criminal court. A knowledgeable attorney can help victims start this process, as well as helping victims decide whether to file a civil lawsuit to recover money damages either before or after resolution of the criminal case.
Other Data Privacy Laws in California
Data privacy has been a major concern of California lawmakers for a while now, which is why the state has tended to lead the way with this kind of legislation. In fact, the California Invasion of Privacy Act (CIPA) is just one of the state’s extremely strong consumer fraud laws with a focus on data privacy. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) is another law that explicitly protects customers against companies that overreach when it comes to sharing personal data. In fact, the CCPA requires companies doing business in the state to give customers the right to opt out of the sharing of their data.
Contact the Los Angeles Consumer Protection Lawyers at Tauler Smith LLP to File a Website Wiretapping Claim
Too often, companies doing business online choose to deliberately disregard the privacy concerns of customers who use their websites. Instead, these companies prioritize financial gains over consumer privacy and personal well-being. If you visited one of these websites and shared any information via a chat feature, you may be able to get statutory damages under the wiretapping provision of the CIPA.