September 8, 2015
(ANTIMEDIA) Of the Earth’s 7.2 billion human beings, an estimated 1.49 billion people actively use Facebook on a monthly basis. The social media site has become both an invaluable tool for online activism and an endless stream of cats, food, and selfies. However, no matter how you use Facebook, the company more than likely has your face on file via its facial-recognition software. This software has lead Facebook Inc. to be sued four times this year for possible violations of Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act.
Currently, Facebook’s software analyzes faces in photos to suggest tags of friends. However, the faces are stored in a database that has privacy advocates concerned. The latest complaint was filed by Frederick William Gullen of Illinois. Gullen does not have a Facebook account but claims Facebook made a template of his face after a friend uploaded a picture of him. Gullen’s complaint states:
“Facebook is actively collecting, storing, and using — without providing notice, obtaining informed written consent or publishing data retention policies — the biometrics of its users and unwitting non-users … Specifically, Facebook has created, collected and stored over a billion ‘face templates’ (or ‘face prints’) — highly detailed geometric maps of the face — from over a billion individuals, millions of whom reside in the State of Illinois.”
Although no federal law exists to govern the commercial use and collection of biometrics, Illinois and Texas have passed laws designed to protect the public. Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act made it illegal to collect and store faceprints without obtaining informed written consent. The law also made it illegal for companies to sell, lease, or otherwise profit from a customer’s biometric information. The lawsuits allege Facebook is violating BIPA because it makes faceprints without written consent.
Mary Dixon, legislative director for the ACLU of Illinois, told the IB Times she believes Facebook will likely argue its faceprints are derived from photos, making them exempt from BIPA. The law states that scans of “hand or face geometry” require permission but exempts photographs.
lvaro M. Bedoya, founding executive director of Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy & Technology, also expressed similar concerns. Bedoya was part of discussions on how to craft guidelines for face recognition technology that involved the Center on Privacy & Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, and tech industry trade groups.
Bedoya told the IB Times that the groups eventually withdrew from the discussions because the trade associations stifled all attempts to protect consumers, including a rule requiring companies to obtain written consent before collecting faceprints:
“When not a single trade association would agree to that, we just realized we weren’t dealing with people who were there to negotiate,” Bedoya told the Times. “We were there to deal basically with people who wanted to stop the process, or make it something that was watered down.”
The sad fact is that most users of Facebook do not mind having their photos stored in a database that could potentially find its way into the government’s hands. We keep scrolling down our newsfeed’s parade of cats, selfies, food, and those crazy conspiracy theorists — blissfully unaware. But remember this, “friends”: For every picture you upload, Facebook, and thus Big Brother, get one step closer to cataloging the world.
[UPDATE 9/9/2015: I was invited on RT to talk about this story. Watch the interview below.]
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