Meta Can't Shake Privacy Suit Over 'Voiceprints'

An Illinois resident can proceed with a claim that Meta Platforms violated the Illinois biometric privacy law by capturing her “voiceprint” when she used Messenger to make audio calls or send text messages she had dictated, a federal judge ruled this week.

The decision, handed down by U.S. District Court Judge Susan Illston in the Northern District of California, stems from a class-action complaint brought last year by Natalie Delgado (formerly Turck), who alleged in that Meta collected users' voiceprints without obtaining their written consent.

She accused Meta of violating the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, which prohibits companies from collecting voiceprints, retinal scans, fingerprints, scans of facial geometry, and other biometric identifiers from state residents without their permission.

That law doesn't define the term voiceprint.

Delgado alleged that Meta updated its privacy policy in January 2023 to disclose that it “may” have collected users' voice recordings at some time in the previous 12 months. That updated provision also said those voice recordings “may be used to identify you,” according to the complaint.

Her complaint also referenced a patent awarded to Meta in 2020 for a method of identifying social networking users based on their voices.

Meta urged Illston to dismiss the lawsuit at an early stage for several reasons. Among other arguments, Meta said the allegations, even if proven true, wouldn't show that the company collected voiceprints, as opposed to voice recordings.

The company specifically urged Illston to rule that neither its patent for a voice identification system nor the reference in its 2023 privacy policy to collecting voice recordings “provides plausible support for the allegation that Meta has collected any voiceprints.”

“The existence of a patent does not indicate that the owner practices the covered invention,” Meta wrote in a motion filed last October with Illston.

The company added that its privacy policy “merely reflects -- consistent with Meta’s disclosure obligations under California law -- that Meta may collect a voice recording -- not a voiceprint -- from users of its services.”

Illston rejected those arguments for now, but said company could raise them again at a later stage of the proceedings.

"The court ...  finds it is proper to consider plaintiff's allegations regarding the privacy notice and the patents in ruling on the motion to dismiss," Illston wrote.

“Voice recordings which may be used to identify a person are more than mere 'voice recordings,'” Illston continued, adding that Meta could challenge the relevance of its 2023 privacy policy after there was a more complete factual record.

She also said statements in the patent awarded to Meta were sufficient to infer -- for now -- that it collects voiceprints.

“Whether or not Meta actually practices the technology described in the voiceprint patents may be appropriately litigated down the line,” she wrote.

While the ruling went against Meta on the key issue in the case, Illston did dismiss some of the claims in the complaint -- including a claim that the company failed to adequately protect users' biometric data -- but said Delgado could beef up her allegations and refile those counts.

Meta hasn't yet responded to MediaPost's request for comment.

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