Judge OKs Class Action Status For Illinoisans Claiming Facebook Violated State Privacy Law
from the face-off dept
The last time we discussed Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act, a 2008 law that gives citizens in the state rights governing how companies collect and protect their biometric data, it was when a brother/sister pair attempted to use the law to pull cash from Take-Two Interactive over its face-scanning app for the NBA2K series. In that case, the court ruled that the two could not claim to have suffered any actual harm as a result of using their avatars, with their real faces attached, in the game’s online play. One of the chief aspects of the BIPA law is that users of a service must not find their biometric data being used in a way that they had not intended. In this case, online play with these avatars was indeed the stated purpose of uploading their faces and engaging in online play to begin with.
But now the law has found itself in the news again, with a federal court ruling that millions of Facebook users can proceed under a class action with claims that Facebook’s face-tagging database violates BIPA. Perhaps importantly, Facebook’s recent and very public privacy issues may make a difference compared with the Take-Two case.
A federal judge ruled Monday that millions of the social network’s users can proceed as a group with claims that its photo-scanning technology violated an Illinois law by gathering and storing biometric data without their consent. Damages could be steep — a fact that wasn’t lost on the judge, who was unsympathetic to Facebook’s arguments for limiting its legal exposure.
Facebook has for years encouraged users to tag people in photographs they upload in their personal posts and the social network stores the collected information. The company has used a program it calls DeepFace to match other photos of a person. Alphabet’s cloud-based Google Photos service uses similar technology and Google faces a lawsuit in Chicago like the one against Facebook in San Francisco federal court.
Both companies have argued that none of this violates BIPA, even when this face-data database is generated without users’ permission. That seems to contradict BIPA, where fines between $1,000 and $5,000 can be assessed with every use of a person’s image without their permission. Again, recent news may come into play in this case, as noted by the lawyer for the Facebook users in this case.
“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,” he said.
Now, Facebook has argued in court against this moving forward as a class by pointing out that different users could make different claims of harm, impacting both the fines and outcomes of their claims. While there is some merit to that, the court looked at those arguments almost purely as a way for Facebook to try to get away from the enormous damages that could potentially be levied under a class action suit, and rejected them.
As in the Take-Two case, Facebook is doing everything it can to set the bar for any judgement on the reality of actual harm suffered by these users, of which the company claims there is none.
The Illinois residents who sued argued the 2008 law gives them a “property interest” in the algorithms that constitute their digital identities. The judge has agreed that gives them grounds to accuse Facebook of real harm. Donato has ruled that the Illinois law is clear: Facebook has collected a “wealth of data on its users, including self-reported residency and IP addresses.” Facebook has acknowledged that it can identify which users who live in Illinois have face templates, he wrote.
We’ve had our problems with class actions suits in the past, but it shouldn’t be pushed aside that this case has the potential for huge damages assessed on Facebook. It’s also another reminder that federal privacy laws are in sore need of modernization, if for no other reason than to harmonize how companies can treat users throughout the United States.