Facebook is in some legal hot water. A federal judge ruled Monday that the social network company has to face a lawsuit because its face recognition feature violated a 2008 Illinois law that prohibits companies from collecting and storing biometric data of people without their permission.
The Illinois residents who brought the lawsuit said the 2008 law gives them a “property interest” in the algorithms that establish their digital identities. Judge James Donato has agreed that gives them the right to accuse the social network company of real damage.
In the order, Donato wrote:
“A class action is clearly superior to individual proceedings here. While not trivial, BIPA’s statutory damages are not enough to incentivize individual plaintiffs given the high costs of pursuing discovery on Facebook’s software and code base and Facebook’s willingness to litigate the case…Facebook seems to believe that a class action is not superior because statutory damages could amount to billions of dollars.”
Facebook’s Tag Suggestions tool was launched in June 7, 2011 and identifies users in photos and recommends automatic tagging of your friends. Once the tool detects the faces in a photo, Facebook computes a face signature and face template. If the signature matches the template, the social network company recommends a tag.
The feature can identify 90 percent of faces in pictures. According to the lawsuit, 76 percent of the faces in the pictures have face signatures computed.
“As more people become aware of the scope of Facebook’s data collection and as consequences begin to attach to that data collection, whether economic or regulatory, Facebook will have to take a long look at its privacy practices and make changes consistent with user expectations and regulatory requirements,” Shawn Williams, a lawyer for Facebook users, said.
Privacy advocates have expressed worry that the images Facebook collects could be even more valuable to identify thieves than names, addresses and credit card numbers. That kind of information can be changed while biometric data for retinas, face geometry, fingerprints and hands are unique identifiers.
Facebook said that the data it gathers isn’t covered by Illinois law, which prohibits collection of consumers’ fingerprints, voice prints and scans of hand or face geometry. The social networking company added that users have the option of withdrawing from the feature.