A class-action suit has just been settled as Google agrees to pay $100 million to Illinois residents. The complaint explained that the Google Photos feature that identifies faces violated Illinois’ BIPA (Biometric Information Privacy Act) by storing facial recognition data without notifying users.
The BIPA determines that companies must warn the user in writing if they are storing any sort of identifying information such as facial recognition, fingerprints, retina scans, etc. It’s also imperative that companies be explicit about how long this information will be stored. According to BIPA, Photos did not disclose these terms and was grouping faces in pictures without the users’ consent.
Google has agreed to settle the dispute by paying $100 million to Illinois residents that were affected by this feature from May 2015 to April 2022.
In practice, this means that if you lived in Illinois during this period you can submit a claim and get part of this payout, which is expected to be anywhere from $200 to $400, depending on how many people file the claim.
In a statement to The Verge, Google spokesperson José Castañeda said the company was pleased to resolve the issue and further clarified that the facial recognition feature of Photos is used mainly for organization and ease of use, and the grouped pictures are only visible to each individual user:
“Google Photos can group similar faces to help you organize pictures of the same person so you can easily find old photos and memories. Of course, all this is only visible to you and you can easily turn off this functionality if you choose." – Source: The Verge
It’s not the first time Illinois files class-action lawsuits against tech giants and wins. A very similar complaint was made about Facebook’s now abandoned Tag suggestion feature, which would suggest tags based on facial recognition in any photos posted on the platform. Facebook had to pay $650 million on the now-settled lawsuit.
The feature was introduced in 2010 and always had a controversial history. Anyone was allowed to “tag” people in public pictures without their consent, and pictures you were tagged in would remain visible in your public profile.
Last year Facebook ended its use of facial recognition on the platform, allegedly deleting data from over one billion users. As one of the reasons for the decision, the growing concern for the use of the technology was cited. Amazon has also abandoned its own facial recognition software, and both IBM and Microsoft had stopped selling their software to the police.
Amazon cited a lack of proper laws regarding the use of the technology as one of the reasons for discontinuing use of their software. The use of facial recognition software by the police has been controversial from the beginning, as it’s used to identify and arrest those who have broken the law. This has led to people being wrongfully arrested and further problems rose from how biased and imprecise the software can be when analyzing people of color.
Facial recognition certainly has a number of beneficial uses. It can indeed be used for severe matters such as identifying suspects or locating missing persons in otherwise impenetrable amounts of video or photo evidence. Even something as simple as organizing hundreds of pictures for personal use, like the aforementioned Google Photos feature, is a valid use-case. More advanced types of AI can also be used to automatically describe photos in words for those with visual impairments.
As is most cases when it comes to advanced technology, it’s not inherently evil, but its owners cannot be allowed to collect so much personal information that their users did not explicitly consent to. For now, it seems like most tech giants are staying away from this feature until it’s properly regulated, given how much of a nightmare it must be to defend its use without appropriate laws. When taken to court, it will almost always be a losing battle.