Facebook’s privacy problems suffered a major setback in a US Federal Court this week. Judge James Donato of the Northern District federal court in San Francisco allowed a class action brought by Facebook users in Illinois to go ahead.
The case was brought by several Facebook users alleging that the “Tag Suggestions” feature violates their privacy rights. Facebook’s tagging feature allows users to tag themselves or friends in photos, and Facebook also uses facial recognition technology to suggest friends be tagged.
Facebook has the ability to use facial recognition software to tag you in photos. Unfortunately, not just your photos, but any photo anyone places on Facebook at any time. This means even street shots, security camera or pictures posted by strangers.
Facebook’s tag suggestions program scans photographs uploaded by users, identifies people who appear in photographs and enables them to be tagged.
To identify faces, the tool first separates faces from other objects in the photograph. It then standardizes faces based on certain attributes, such as size.
Facebook argued that users had to be “aggrieved” in order for their claim to be valid. In other words, victims had to suffer a “serious injury or harm”.
Here’s a hypothetical example of being aggrieved: a Facebook friend uploaded a photo of you at a tennis match you attended during working hours and Facebook then identified you in the image, which was later seen by your employer. Since you had taken sick leave that day, your employer sacked you based on the Facebook evidence showing you lied. In this circumstance, you would have suffered actual harm because of the tagging feature.
The judge rejected this argument, saying that the intention of the statute was to codify “a right of privacy in personal biometric information”. Crucially, the court said that a person is “aggrieved” when “a legal right is invaded by the act complained of”.
The ruling is another blow to Facebook, which has been facing growing privacy concerns in recent weeks. In March, news surfaced that Cambridge Analytica — a political data firm with ties to President Donald Trump’s campaign — had accessed and improperly stored a huge trove of its user data. Facebook says 87 million users may have been affected.