First Union Corp. confirmed Tuesday that it filed suit Dec. 30 against an Internet company it says lifted customer information off of its Web site in a way that threatens customer privacy.
First Union claims that Secure Commerce Services of Princeton, N.J. is taking customers' on-line banking information from the First Union Web site without the banking company's consent, and that it is not keeping certain customer account data safe.
Secure Commerce lets consumers see their bank account information and pay their bills through its Paytrust Web site. The company gathers customers' financial information directly from the Web sites of other companies, at the request of its customers.
The company is one of a new breed of "aggregators" informally known as "screen scrapers." Such companies get permission from customers to collect account-related data and consolidate it in one place. Scrapers are raising the hackles of banks that fear being disintermediated and worry about misuse of customer information by screen scrapers.
First Union filed its lawsuit just days after it issued guidelines intended to regulate the practices of screen-scraping companies.
Observers were divided as to whether First Union's guidelines, which require aggregators to sign contracts and follow privacy standards, would provide much protection for the $235 billion-asset banking company.
First Union "is not in a terribly strong position" to fight off the aggregators, said Octavio Marenzi, managing director of the bank research and consulting firm Celent Communications.
He characterized First Union's approach as an attempt "to scare other firms off." The bank could outspend Paytrust in the court system, he noted.
Thomas P. Vartanian, chairman of the financial institution and electronic commerce practice at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobsen in Washington, said banks are taking the need to maintain the privacy of customer information very seriously.
In general, banks bringing lawsuits against such aggregator companies would have to prove that their relationships with customers are affected, and that federal or state laws are violated.
Sixteen states have a "common-law right of privacy," Mr. Vartanian pointed out. The court system would have to decide whether consumers who have signed agreements with aggregators have "undone" those rights, and if so, what remaining rights they have, he said.
Edward G. McLaughlin, chief executive officer and co-founder of the privately held Paytrust, did not return phone calls on Tuesday seeking comment. Mr. McLaughlin told The Charlotte Observer, which first reported on the lawsuit, "I don't feel this is necessarily something the courts have to mediate." The suit was filed in the United States District Court in Charlotte.
Chris Costanzo contributed to this report.