Illinois Lawmaker Wants To Gut Privacy Protections For 'Faceprints'

Facebook, Google and other Web companies that use facial recognition technology to identify people could get a big boost in ongoing privacy battles, if an Illinois state senator succeeds in amending an 8-year-old privacy law.

The Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act requires companies to obtain written releases from people before collecting certain biometric data, including scans of "face geometry." The measure also requires companies that gather biometric data to notify people about the practice, and to publish a schedule for destroying the information.

Yesterday, state Senator Terry Link, who introduced the measure back in 2008, proposed a revision that could protect Facebook, Google, Shutterfly and others from lawsuits.

Link's amendment specifies that "scans of facial geometry" are only covered by the law when data has been gathered via "an in-person process whereby a part of the body is traversed by a detector or an electronic beam."

The amendment also states that digital photos, as well as physical ones, are excluded from the definition of biometric identifiers.

Not surprisingly, Facebook cheered Link's move. "We appreciate Sen. Link’s effort to clarify the scope of the law he authored," a Facebook representative reportedly told The Verge.

Facebook, Google and Shutterfly have all been sued in the last year for allegedly violating the Illinois law.

The companies argued that the cases should be dismissed for numerous reasons, including that the law wasn't meant to apply to faceprints derived from photos. Facebook specifically argued that the measure the law only covers "face geometry" when it's based on something other than photos, like in-person scans.

So far, judges have interpreted the law more broadly. Most recently, U.S. District Court Judge James Donato in San Francisco ruled in May that Facebook's argument was inconsistent with the law's purpose.

If passed, the amendment seems certain to protect online photo services from new lawsuits over facial recognition initiatives.

"There's no question this is designed to gut the law," Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of Georgetown Law School's Center on Privacy & Technology, tells MediaPost.

He adds that no widely used facial recognition technology relies only on lasers.

"It just doesn't exist," he says.

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