Facebook has agreed to pay $550 million to settle a federal lawsuit which had accused the company of violating an Illinois biometric privacy law by harvesting facial data for its photo-labelling service, Tag Suggestions, without seeking permission from users and without informing them about how long their data would be stored, the New York Times reported. During a call with investors, Facebook’s CFO David Wehner had confirmed the settlement. The lawsuit was filed almost five years ago, and the settlement is yet to be approved by a judge.

Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act, that was enacted in 2008, requires companies to obtain written permission from subjects before the collection of a person’s biometric information. It gives residents the right to sue companies for up to $5,000 for each violation. As per The New York Times, Facebook had argued that its collection of biometric information did not harm the individuals and thus they should not be sued over a consumer privacy law. Facebook also made a petition in December 2019, asking the US Supreme Court to review the case, to no avail. Tag Suggestions, which has been a feature on Facebook since 2011, uses face-matching software to suggest names of people in the users’ photos.

Facebook’s history with face recognition software

  • In November 2019, we had reported that Facebook was testing a facial recognition system on its mobile app to verify whether users were humans or bots. The current status of this yet-unreleased feature is unclear.
  • In September 2019, the company said that users would have to to opt-in to its ‘face recognition’ feature  which was used by default  to provide tag suggestions. The default ‘tag suggestions’ feature was rolled back. However, it only meant that Facebook could no longer suggest your friends to tag you in photos, unless you wanted to. Facial recognition, as a feature, continues to be present on the platform.
  • In July 2019, US’ Federal Trade Commission (FTC) slapped a $5 billion penalty on Facebook for misrepresenting users’ ability to control the use of facial recognition technology with their accounts, among other things. The FTC had said that Facebook’s facial recognition setting called “Tag Suggestions” was turned on by default, while the updated data policy suggested that users would have to opt-in to enable facial recognition for their accounts.

Big Tech’s facial recognition play

  • When Apple launched its facial recognition system ⁠— called Face ID ⁠— in 2017 on the iPhone X, former American Senator Al Franken raised privacy concerns associated with capturing a sophisticated three dimensional model of a user’s face, such as how and where such data is stored (locally or remotely), which apps is it shared with, and how Apple would deal with law enforcement requests for Face ID data.
  • Amazon is potentially creating a “database of suspicious persons” using facial recognition technology. Amazon Rekognition, the company’s face identification software, is already licensed by several law enforcement agencies in the US.
  • Google was carrying out a “field research” to improve the facial recognition algorithm on its Pixel 4 device. It was later reported that the contractors carrying out this field research for Google were specifically targeting dark skinned homeless people and college students in the US, thereby highlighting the social biases that underpin the data sets for such technologies.