Facebook under fire for Facial Recognition Technology

In a previous post, we discussed how we will be seeing a rise in litigation over biometric data in the near future. Facebook’s photo tagging lawsuit is one of the first examples. Despite Facebook’s attempts to throw out the case, a federal judge has permitted a class action lawsuit against the social media giant’s facial-recognition technology. The technology automatically matches names to faces in photos uploaded to Facebook. It was an attempt to make “tagging” friends easier for users and first became available in 2010.

The case was initially filed in Illinois and has since transferred to California. The suit alleges that Facebook’s facial-recognition technology violates an Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA) statute by not informing users about the collection of biometric data. Facebook has said that photo-tagging is disclosed in its terms of service and that users can opt out of the technology at any time. Judge Donato, the San Francisco federal judge who denied Facebook’s request to toss the lawsuit, said protecting the privacy of its users must be a priority for Facebook and that collecting biometric data without their permission is unethical. Facebook previously said they invented the technology to help users, but did not comment on Judge Donato’s decision.

Why is Facebook being targeted?

Facial recognition technologies have been widely used by other social media websites and apps as well. Snapchat is a great example. The app uses the front-facing camera to put “filters” on the user’s face. Like Facebook, Snapchat is known to use facial recognition technology to store information about its users. This brings up the question of why Facebook is being targeted, while other social media websites and apps seem to be getting a free pass. The answer is actually quite simple: Facebook is too good at facial recognition. When comparing Facebook’s facial recognition technology to the FBI’s system, Facebook performs much better. According to Facebook, they are able to identify a person correctly 98% of the time. The FBI’s General Identification system only identifies people correctly 85% of the time. Part of the problem with the FBI’s system is that they are only able to recognize photographs taken straight on, such as a mugshot, whereas Facebook can identify users in nearly any setting. The FBI also has a larger database than Facebook to search. Facebook’s facial recognition software has become one of the world’s most advanced systems in the world and this lawsuit may be seen as an attempt to curve their power and capabilities.

Sources referenced:

  1. ABA Journal
  2. USA Today
  3. NPR
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