Google is the latest tech giant to reach a settlement in a BIPA case. The company was facing a class action lawsuit that originated with the Face Grouping feature in Google Photos, and has agreed to pay $100 million to those whose biometric data was collected and used without consent.
In terms of utility, the Face Grouping feature is similar to Facebook’s Face Tagging feature, which was the subject of both a previous suit and an ongoing BIPA case. Both features automatically extract facial templates from images uploaded to the platform, and group them together to make pictures of the same person easier to find.
The Face Tagging feature tagged images publicly, while Google’s Face Grouping feature only sorted photos within a private account. However, both ultimately violated Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), which states that businesses cannot gather biometric data without the user’s consent, and that they must have a clear data retention policy that specifies how biometric data will be used and when that data will be deleted.
Google failed to comply with BIPA on every one of those fronts. The company did not indicate that it was collecting biometric data, nor did it inform users about its use of facial recognition in the Face Grouping feature.
Google has updated its policies in light of the settlement, stating that any face models that have been collected will be purged if a Google Photos account has been inactive for two years, or if someone deactivates the Face Grouping function. Any face models pulled from an individual photo will also be scrapped if the account holder chooses to delete that image.
While the new policy should cover any images that given account holders upload of themselves, it’s unclear how that applies to other people, who cannot give consent if they do not know that their image has been uploaded to the Google Photos service (that exact issue is at the heart of Facebook’s second BIPA complaint). Meanwhile, any Illinois residents whose images were uploaded between May 1, 2015, and April 25, 2022, are eligible to claim a portion of the settlement. The actual amount will depend on the number of people who submit a claim before the September 24 deadline, but is expected to be around $400.
Moving forward, Google will inform users about its use of biometric technology in Google Photos. The company had previously tried to argue that BIPA does not cover photographs, but that argument has yet to carry any weight in court.
June 7, 2022 – by Eric Weiss