In the Facebook-faceprint tussle, score one for the little guys.

Is that Maria Callas? Check with Facebook -- they'll know.
Is that Maria Callas? Check with Facebook — they’ll know.

I blogged last year about privacy concerns surrounding Facebook’s “face geometry” database activities, which have led to lawsuits in Illinois under the premise that those activities run afoul of that state’s laws regarding the use of biometric data.

The Illinois legislation, enacted in 2008, requires companies to obtain written authorization from subjects prior to collecting any sort of face geometry or related biometric data.

The lawsuit, which was filed in early 2015, centers on Facebook’s automatic photo-tagging feature which has been active since around 2010. The “faceprints” feature – Facebook’s term for face geometry – recognizes faces based on the social network’s vast archive of users and their content, and suggests their names when they appear in photos uploaded by their friends.

The lawsuit was filed by three plaintiffs in a potential class-action effort, and it’s been mired in legal wrangling ever since.

From the outset, many had predicted that Facebook would emerge victorious.  Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University, noted in 2015 that the Illinois law is “a niche statute, enacted to solve a particular problem.  Seven years later, it’s being applied to a very different set of circumstances.”

But this past week, a federal judge sided not with Facebook, but with the plaintiffs by refusing to grant a request for dismissal.

In his ruling issued on May 5th, U.S. District Court Judge James Donato rejected Facebook’s contention that the Illinois Biometric Privacy Information Act does not apply to faceprints that are derived from photos, but only when it’s based on a source other than photos, such as in-person scans.

The Judge roundly rejected this contention as inconsistent with the purpose of the Illinois law. Donato wrote:

“The statute is an informed consent privacy law addressing the collection, retention and use of personal biometric identifiers and information at a time when biometric technology is just beginning to be broadly deployed. Trying to cabin this purpose within a specific in-person data collection technique has no support in the words and structure of the statute, and is antithetical to its broad purpose of protecting privacy in the face of emerging biometric technology.”

This isn’t the first time that the Illinois law has withstood a legal challenge. Another federal court judge, Charles Norgle, sided against Shutterfly recently on the same issues.

And Google is now in the crosshairs; it’s facing a class-action lawsuit filed early this year for its face geometry activities involving Google Photos.

Clearly, this fight has a long way to go before the issues are resolved.

If you have strong opinions pro or con about social networks’ use of face geometry, please share your views with other readers in the comment section below.

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