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Facebook faces billion-dollar lawsuit over facial recognition tags

The company would owe every user in Illinois $5,000.


Phillip Tracy


Facebook could owe billions of dollars for using facial recognition after a judge approved a pending lawsuit against the social network.

California judge James Donato ruled on Monday that the lawsuit, first filed in 2015, will finally proceed as a class-action case. It alleges Facebook is in violation of an Illinois state law that prohibits the collection of biometric data without written consent.

Three plaintiffs are seeking $5,000 in penalties per offense for every time Facebook used facial recognition on a user in Illinois without their explicit permission. There is a chance Facebook could owe millions of people as the case includes users in the state who the social network created and stored facial recognition algorithms for after June 7, 2011, when the “tag suggestions” tool launched. Judge Donato put the extent of the damages into perspective, “Facebook seems to believe statutory damages could amount to billions of dollars.”

The law in question is called the Biometric Information Privacy Act, which offers users protection over security methods used by websites, including iris scan, fingerprint, voiceprint, or scans of hands. The act states:

No private entity may collect, capture, purchase, receive through trade, or otherwise obtain a person’s or a customer’s biometric identifier or biometric information, unless it first: (1) informs the subject or the subject’s legally authorized representative in writing that a biometric identifier or biometric information is being collected or stored;

Facebook stood its ground on the issue, telling Reuters, “We continue to believe the case has no merit and will defend ourselves vigorously.” Facebook hasn’t been shy about disclosing its facial recognition technology, which it uses to suggest who to tag in photos. When asked during his testimony before Congress about government regulation, CEO Mark Zuckerberg cited facial recognition as one technology that should not be heavily regulated.

“I think that there’s a balance that’s extremely important to strike here, where you obtain special consent for special features like face recognition,” Zuckerberg said during his testimony. “But we still need to make it so that American companies can innovate in these areas, or else we’re going to fall behind Chinese competitors and others around the world who have different regimes for different new features like that.”

The lawsuit comes as Facebook struggles to overcome a privacy scandal that saw Cambridge Analytica exploit the personal data of 87 million users. Earlier today, we found out the number of users affected could soar when Brittany Kaiser, a former employee of the political data firm, explained that additional quizzes were used to harvest information. Facebook will spend the next few months conducting an audit on every app that had permission to large amounts of user data.

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