Italian watchdog to investigate potential data breach linked to 5Stars

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5Star co-founder Beppe Grillo | Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images

ROME — The Italian privacy watchdog is preparing to launch an investigation into digital marketing linked to the governing 5Star Movement, an official said.

Last week Linkiesta.it, an Italian online newspaper, reported that Casaleggio Associati — a digital marketing company owned and operated by the son of a late 5Stars co-founder — may have illegally accessed the personal data of millions of Facebook users without their consent.

According to the report, an online app released in 2013 for party activists allowed the company to access the personal data of the activists as well as their Facebook friends. (Casaleggio Associati still owns the 5Stars’ digital democracy platform, Rousseau, and oversees the party’s policy positions.)

“We can confirm that we have received some complaints regarding the issue … We are about to start an investigation into it,” a spokesperson for the privacy watchdog in Rome said.

The app’s privacy disclaimer specifically noted that the app could access third parties’ data through the user’s Facebook page and “the user will act as a guarantor [of such data] on Mr. Grillo’s behalf,” meaning the user would be responsible for third-party access. (Beppe Grillo, a comedian, co-founded the 5Stars.)

The disclaimer also specified that the app would access the name, last name, date of birth, national fiscal code, address, email and any other information available on the user’s Facebook page, including their political or religious views, as well as the same information for third parties.

Davide Casaleggio, son of 5Stars co-founder Gianroberto Casaleggio, denied any wrongdoing in a statement at the end of last week, saying the app asked for “users’ consent to access their personal data.” The data had been used to classify the level of users’ activism “for example if they changes their profile picture often or had many friends that used the [party] app,” he added.

At least three people have filed complaints to the privacy watchdog asking to clarify if their personal data was accessed by Casaleggio Associati through the 5Stars app.

Marco Canestrari, a former employee at the company, said: “I don’t know if the data was used to target users in any way [but] this a digital marketing company we are talking about.”

Canestrari, who currently works as an IT developer in London, said it was impossible to know to how many people’s data the company had access to.

“At the time Grillo had 1,022,000 fans on Facebook. If, for example, three percent of his fans download the Facebook app we’d be talking about 33,000 people… Back in 2013 Italians had an average of 300 friends each on Facebook which means [Casaleggio] could have had access to close to 9 million Facebook users’ data.”

In its statement, the company said it has since erased all the data it collected, in accordance with the law.

“This scandal shows how urgent it is that this system of online strip searches be stopped,” MEP Patrick Breyer from the Pirate Party said.

“[Did the] users that used the app realize what they were agreeing to and what was done [with the data]?” Breyer asked.

CORRECTION: The headline on this article has been updated to correct the target of the watchdog’s investigation.

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