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.
The case dates back to 2015, long before Facebook became mired in controversy over revelations that millions of its users’ private information fell into the hands of British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. It’s rare for consumers to win class-action status in privacy cases. In Facebook’s history, most such cases don’t get that far.
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 Deep Face to match other photos of a person. Alphabet Inc.’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 insisted in court that gathering data on what you look like isn’t against the law, even without your permission. But under the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act of 2008, the companies could be fined $1,000 to $5,000 each time a person’s image is used without consent.
Shawn Williams, a lawyer for the users, said it’s not clear yet whether the lawsuit might prompt changes in the way Facebook uses biometric data.