On Tuesday, many Facebookers noticed an odd notification from the company in their news feeds. The post informed users that the social media juggernaut was expanding its use of facial recognition software, ostensibly in an effort to “make Facebook better.”
The short notification, however, also included the following bit:
“You control face recognition. The setting is on, but you can turn it off at any time, which applies to features we may add later.”
According to Wired, to find out if Facebook has face recognition activated for you and to turn it off, all you have to do is go to “Settings > Face Recognition, then select yes or no at the question Do you want Facebook to be able to recognize you in photos and videos?”
That Facebook uses such technology should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the platform. The concept and practice of “tagging” has been around for a very long time. Similarly, the notion of a tech company increasing its capabilities shouldn’t really raise any eyebrows.
But the timing of the announcement should. That’s because on Monday — just 24 hours before that strange notification was sent — a California judge denied Facebook’s attempt to get out of a class action lawsuit accusing the company of violating users’ privacy rights.
That case centers on consent. The argument claims Facebook is in the wrong for gathering and storing the biometric data of millions of users without each individual’s prior approval.
The legal justification for the action stems from a 2008 law passed by the state legislature of Illinois. The Biometric Information Privacy Act mandates that consent must be given before any biometric data can be extracted from an Illinois citizen.
The case is being brought before a court in California, where the company is headquartered in San Francisco, because of the plaintiffs’ agreement to Facebook’s terms of service. That agreement stipulates that any legal dispute will be handled on the company’s home turf.
Facebook’s motion to dismiss the case argued that none of the Illinoisans accusing the company had actually been harmed. U.S. District Judge James Donato, however, wasn’t having it.
“When an online service simply disregards the Illinois procedures, as Facebook is alleged to have done, the right of the individual to maintain her biometric privacy vanishes into thin air,” Donato wrote in Monday’s ruling. “The precise harm the Illinois legislature sought to prevent is then realized.”
It’s possible that the timing of the two events, Facebook’s loss in court and the company’s notification on facial recognition features, is purely coincidental. Stranger things have certainly happened.
But one could be forgiven for concluding that this just isn’t the case. More likely, one might surmise, is that Facebook is finally realizing that there may actually be legal consequences attached to their drive toward technological innovation.
Or, in other words, Facebook is trying to get ahead of the curve.
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