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Could your law firm seize your LinkedIn account?

October 12, 2012

You’d like to think that’s not possible. LinkedIn is your professional profile and network. It’s one of the principal ways lawyers create an Internet identity and nurture relationships.

But Timothy Lee (@binarybits), an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute who covers tech policy for ArsTechnica, reports a federal judge last week rejected a Pennsylvania woman’s claim that her employer violated a federal anti-hacking statute when it took control of her LinkedIn account after firing her.

Linda Eagle was the head of a company called Edcomm when it was acquired in 2010. But relations soured and Eagle was fired the following year. Eagle had shared her LinkedIn password with another Edcomm employee so that she could help Eagle manage the account. When Eagle was shown the door, her former assistant changed the password on her account, freezing Eagle out of it. Edcomm then replaced Eagle’s name and picture with the name and photograph of her successor.

Eagle claimed that the company’s action violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). Per Lee:

The CFAA requires the plaintiff to demonstrate she was harmed by the defendant’s unauthorized access to a computer system. Eagle had argued the loss of her LinkedIn account damaged her reputation, since she was unable to respond in a timely fashion to messages sent to her on the site. She also claimed that as a result, she lost business opportunities including one valued at more than $100,000.

The court didn’t buy it.

Plaintiff is not claiming that she lost money because her computer was inoperable or because she expended funds to remedy damage to her computer. Rather, she claims that she was denied potential business opportunities as a result of Edcomm’s unauthorized access and control over her account.” Lost opportunities are “simply not compensable under the CFAA.

The suit will be allowed to continue under state law, presumably a property rights claim. But the fact one could lose their LinkedIn account for even a number of months is pretty scary.

Is Eagle’s giving access to her account to a co-employee unusual? Hardly. I regularly hear of law firm marketing departments creating LinkedIn profiles for some lawyers and working on the profiles of others.

In which case the law firm is either setting up usernames and passwords for the lawyer or the lawyer is giving the firm carte blanche access to their LinkedIn account.

It’s possible a law firm could view a LinkedIn profile like a website profile or a directory listing. Especially in the case where law firm leadership doesn’t understand what LinkedIn is all about.

Rather than risk getting in a dispute, lawyers ought to do a couple things.

One, create your own LinkedIn profile and account and don’t give anyone at the firm access to your account. If you leave the firm, change the password so you are not on the outside looking in if a dispute arises.

Two, suggest to the firm that the firm’s social media policy include a provision that LinkedIn accounts are owned by the lawyer. Certainly the firm, while you are employed there, may require you to use LinkedIn in certain ways. But either a provision in a social media policy or email exchanges confirming ownership would prevent future problems.

Common sense dictates that law firms are not going to want to seize a lawyer’s LinkedIn account. It’s not in the firm’s interests when it comes to how the firm would be viewed by its lawyers as well as recruits and lateral hires. Word would spread mighty fast.

But law firms do some crazy things and law firms are filled with lawyers who every once in a while bring some wild claims. A couple simple steps can avoid problems for you.

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