Incident 254: Google’s Face Grouping Allegedly Collected and Analyzed Users’ Facial Structure without Consent, Violated BIPA
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Google has agreed to pay $100 million to Illinois residents to settle a class-action lawsuit over one of its facial recognition features in Google Photos (via Gizmodo). The complaint alleges Google’s face grouping tool, which automatically identifies your face in photos and videos uploaded to Photos, violates Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA).
Introduced in 2008, the BIPA bars companies from collecting and storing any sort of biometric data, including a “retina or iris scan, fingerprint, voiceprint, or scan of hand or face geometry” without making an individual aware in writing about why it’s collecting this kind of data as well as how long it plans on storing it. Google “is in direct violation” of this law, the complaint claims, as it allegedly collects and analyzes a person’s facial structure in connection with its face grouping feature “without providing notice, obtaining informed written consent or publishing data retention policies.”
Eligible Illinois residents can get anywhere between $200 and $400
Google agreed to a $100 million payout as a result of the class-action suit, and it is required to provide users with a notice about the face grouping feature. So, if you are (or were) an Illinois resident who appeared in a photo or video on Google Photos between May 1st, 2015, and April 25th, 2022, you have until September 24th, 2022, to submit a claim on the settlement’s website. According to the class-action notice, you can get anywhere between $200 and $400, depending on court-related expenses and how many people file a claim. The final approval hearing for the settlement will take place on September 28th.
“We’re pleased to resolve this matter relating to specific laws in Illinois, and we remain committed to building easy-to-use controls for our users,” Google spokesperson José Castañeda said in a statement to The Verge. “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.”
Last year, Facebook was ordered to pay $650 million as part of another class-action lawsuit in Illinois. The complaint alleged the platform’s now-discontinued Tag Suggestions tool, which analyzed users’ faces in photos and provided suggestions on who the face may belong to, collected and stored biometric data in violation of the state’s biometrics privacy laws. Snapchat also faces a similar class-action lawsuit in Illinois, claiming the service “unlawfully” collects users’ voiceprints and facial geometry data with its various lenses and filters.
Illinois residents have until Saturday to submit claims for their cut of a $100 million class-action settlement reached this spring in a lawsuit against Google over alleged violations of the state’s biometric privacy law.
Anyone who appeared in a photo on Google Photos between May 1, 2015, and April 25, 2022, while they were an Illinois resident is eligible to submit a claim and can do so on the settlement website or by mail. Attorneys estimate class members will receive between $200 and $400 each, though the exact amount of the payments will depend on how many people submit claims.
The lawsuit alleges Google’s face grouping tool, which sorts faces on Google Photos by similarity, violated the state’s biometric privacy law. The law, known as the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, requires companies to get users’ consent for the use of such technology.
Google did not admit wrongdoing as part of the settlement. In April, company spokesperson José Castañeda said the company would roll out opt-in consent to face grouping in Illinois and more gradually across the U.S. He confirmed Friday that opt-in consent had been fully rolled out in Illinois.
A final approval hearing in the case is scheduled for Wednesday before Cook County Circuit Judge Anna M. Loftus, who granted preliminary approval of the settlement agreement this spring. If the settlement is approved, claimants could receive their cash within 90 days of the approval, though any appeals would slow the process down.
The Google Photos settlement resolves a group of lawsuits filed by five named plaintiffs, the first of which was filed in 2016 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Two plaintiffs filed suit in state court in 2019 after a judge found they lacked standing to sue in federal court; additional plaintiffs later filed their own lawsuits. Each of the five named plaintiffs is eligible for payments of $5,000. Their attorneys will be able to apply for up to $40 million in fees plus costs and expenses, to be paid out of the settlement fund.
Illinois’ biometric privacy law is among the strictest in the U.S. and has sparked hundreds of lawsuits since its passage in 2008.
Another class-action claim deadline looms in November for state residents who use Snapchat. The app’s parent company, Snap Inc., reached a $35 million settlement in a lawsuit last month over allegations its lenses and filters violated state law.
The deadline to submit claims in the Snapchat settlement is Nov. 5; residents can do so on the settlement website. Attorneys estimate payouts will range between $58 and $117.
Snap did not admit wrongdoing in the settlement. The company said last month it “vehemently” denies its technology violates Illinois law and said it has rolled out in-app consent in the state “out of an abundance of caution.”
This spring, some Illinois Facebook users received payouts of almost $400 after Facebook reached a $650 million class-action settlement over its facial tagging feature. Final approval in the case was issued in February 2021 but payments were delayed by an appeal.