When Chicago resident Carlo Licata joined Facebook in 2009, he did what the 390 million other users of the world’s largest social network had already done: He posted photos of himself and friends, tagging the images with names.
But what Licata, now 34, didn’t know was that every time he was tagged, Facebook stored his digitized face in its growing database.
Angered this was done without his knowledge, Licata sued Facebook in 2015 as part of a class action lawsuit filed in Illinois state court accusing the company of violating a one-of-a-kind Illinois law that prohibits collection of biometric data without permission. The suit is ongoing.
Facebook denied the charges, arguing the law doesn’t apply to them. But behind the scenes, the social network giant is working feverishly to prevent other states from enacting a law like the one in Illinois.
Since the suit was filed, Facebook has stepped up its state lobbying, according to records and interviews with lawmakers. But rather than wading into policy fights itself, Facebook has turned to lower-profile trade groups such as the Internet Association, based in Washington, D.C., and the Illinois-based trade association CompTIA to head off bills that would give users more control over how their likenesses are used or whom they can be sold to.
That effort is part of a wider agenda. Tech companies, whose business model is based on collecting data about its users and using it to sell ads, frequently oppose consumer privacy legislation. But privacy advocates say Facebook is uniquely aggressive in opposing all forms of regulation on its technology.
And the strategy has been working. Bills that would have created new consumer data protections for facial recognition were proposed in at least five states this year — Washington, Montana, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Alaska — but all failed, except the Washington bill, which passed only after its scope was limited.
No federal law regulates how companies use biometric privacy or facial recognition, and no lawmaker has ever introduced a bill to do so. That prompted the Government Accountability Office to conclude in 2015 that the “privacy issues that have been raised by facial recognition technology serve as yet another example of the need to adapt federal privacy law to reflect new technologies.” Congress did, however, roll back privacy protections in March by allowing Internet providers to sell browser data without the consumer’s permission.
Facebook says on its website it won’t ever sell users’ data, but the company is poised to cash in on facial recognition in other ways. The market for facial recognition is forecast to grow to $9.6 billion by 2022, according to analysts at Allied Market Research, as companies look for ways to authenticate and recognize repeat customers in stores, or offer specific ads based on a customer’s gender or age.
Facebook is working on advanced recognition technology that would put names to faces even if they are obscured and identify people by their clothing and posture. Facebook has filed patents for technology allowing Facebook to tailor ads based on users’ facial expressions.
But despite the relative lack of regulation, the technology appears to be worrying politicians on both sides of the aisle, and privacy advocates too. During a hearing of the House Government Oversight Committee in March, Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who left Congress in June, warned facial recognition “can be used in a way that chills free speech and free association by targeting people attending certain political meetings, protests, churches or other types of places in public.”
Even one of the inventors of facial recognition is worried. “It pains me to see a technology that I helped invent being used in a way that is not what I had in mind in respect to privacy,” said Joseph Atick, who helped develop facial recognition in the 1990s at Rockefeller University in New York City.
Atick, now an industry consultant, is concerned that companies such as Facebook will use the technology to identify individuals in public spaces without their knowledge or permission.
“I can no longer count on being an anonymous person,” he said, “when I’m walking down the street.”
Atick calls for federal regulations to protect people’s privacy, because without it Americans are left with “a myriad of state laws,” he said. “And state laws can be more easily manipulated by commercial interests.”