The public’s awareness of the issue may commonly come in the form of the platform identifying or tagging individuals in photos or videos posted by other users. This and other scenarios lie at the heart of Paxton’s complaint, which accuses the company of collecting facial data from millions of Texans’ media uploads without permission, failing to disclose it and neglecting to destroy the data within a reasonable time.
According to the filing, people were “oblivious” that the social network was capturing “biometric identifiers,” particularly facial geometry, “from photos and videos that users had uploaded for the sole purpose of sharing with family and friends. Also unbeknownst to users, Facebook was disclosing users’ personal information to other entities who further exploited it.”
Paxton believes the company knowingly violated two pieces of legislation, Texas’ Capture or Use of Biometric Identifier Act and the Deceptive Trade Practices Act. He framed it as “yet another example of Big Tech’s deceitful business practices and it must stop.”
A Meta spokesperson replied to a WWD request for comment with a succinct response: “These claims are without merit and we will defend ourselves vigorously.”
Meta has already abandoned the practice, albeit mere months ago. A November blog post disclosed that “people who’ve opted in will no longer be automatically recognized in photos and videos and we will delete more than a billion people’s individual facial recognition templates.” It also noted the societal concerns over the technology, but appeared to shift blame to regulators for not establishing clear guidance on its use.
In recent years, facial recognition has evolved from the stuff of spy movies or sci-fi creations to become more ubiquitous and commonplace. Smartphones like iPhones and some Androids now regularly unlock devices or authenticate payments with just a glance at the camera. But those security features operate in a rather obvious way. Users not only opt in, but must proactively scan their faces to make it work.
Notably, Meta has never produced its own smartphone. Yet, the company’s latest legal battle isn’t the first time it has run afoul of privacy concerns over face data.
In 2015, a Chicago attorney sued the social media giant for using facial recognition to tag users, arguing that it breached the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act. The case turned into a class action suit and eventually, in 2019, the feature switched to opt-in rather than a default setting. It seems like ancient history, but the matter only closed in February of last year, when a judge accepted settlement terms that put Facebook on the hook for $650 million. According to reports, some 1.6 million people were involved in the class.
The breadth of the latest lawsuit looks massive by comparison. According to Texas, as many as 20.5 million people in Texas have a Facebook account. “The scope of Facebook’s misconduct is staggering,” the filing stated. “Facebook repeatedly captured Texans’ biometric identifiers without consent not hundreds, or thousands, or millions of times — but billions of times.”
The announcement arrives as Meta still reels from a historically disastrous earnings report and another revived lawsuit from the Federal Trade Commission, which is eyeing its Instagram and WhatsApp acquisitions and other accusations of anticompetitive behavior. It’s unclear if that case will reverberate in the Texas suit, considering certain aspects of the complaint were rejected for being outdated.