Facebook could be forced to pay out billions to users over the use of its facial recognition tech

A California judge has ruled that a class-action lawsuit against Facebook’s use of facial-recognition technology can go ahead – signaling further legal woes for the social network.

The plaintiffs bringing the lawsuit to Facebook’s door allege the company gathered biometric facial information without their explicit consent. This argument hinges on an Illinois law called the Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), which states a private entity can’t store an individual’s biometric information without written consent, nor profit from the data.

The lawsuit was originally filed in mid-2015 but has been repeatedly kicked down the road with Facebook attempting to have the case dismissed. On Monday, US District Judge James Donato ruled that the lawsuit can proceed as a class action, meaning any person in a defined group can be entitled to compensation.

In this case, that group has been defined as users “in Illinois for whom Facebook created and stored a face template after June 7, 2011,” which has the potential to cover millions of individuals. With the suit seeking penalties of up to $5,000 (£3,481) for every time a user’s facial image was used without their permission, the potential damages could total to several billion dollars.

The technology at the heart of all this is Facebook’s “tag suggestion” feature, which suggests who may be in a photo based on an existing database of faces. It works by detecting faces, standardising them for size and direction, computing this information into a mathematical face signature, and then comparing this to a stored database of user face templates. It is currently unavailable in the UK, but has been a feature in the US since 2011.

Facebook has issued a statement saying it continues to believe the case has no merit, and that it will continue to fight it “vigorously”.

The ruling comes in the wake of Mark Zuckerberg’s intensive questioning in Washington, itself in the wake of revelations around the company’s involvement in the actions of data analysis firm, Cambridge Analytica.

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