Illinois residents sue Snapchat over face-scanning technology

CHICAGO (Sun-Times Media Wire) - Snapchat selfies are all fun and games until someone files a lawsuit.

Two Illinois men are suing the mobile app company, accusing it of violating a state law on biometrics. Cook County residents Jose Luis Martinez and Malcolm Neal say Snapchat improperly handled the technology behind Lenses, the popular feature that lets users breathe fire or swap faces with friends, the Chicago Sun-Times is reporting.

The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, alleges that Snapchat captures data on users’ appearances without their knowledge or consent and stores it without disclosing how long it will be kept, in violation of the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act.

“Contrary to the claims of this frivolous lawsuit, we are very careful not to collect, store or obtain any biometric information or identifiers about our community,” a Snapchat spokesperson said in a statement.

If the court finds Snapchat guilty of reckless, intentional violation of the law, it will owe $5,000 for each violation. If found guilty of negligent violation, the company will owe $1,000 per violation in damages.

The potential fines could be steep; Snapchat has created face maps for tens of thousands of people who live in Illinois, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit was filed in May in a Los Angeles County Court and moved to a federal court on July 14.

The biometrics law was introduced in 2008 by Sen. Terry Link, D-Gurnee, at a time when select gas stations and grocery stores were testing “Pay By Touch” machines that used fingerprinting to make financial transactions.

The act was part of an American Civil Liberties Union initiative to prevent information on biometric identifiers – such as eye scans, voice prints, fingerprints and facial features – from falling into the wrong hands for the wrong purpose.

“What we were concerned about is how [facial recognition technology] could be acquired and used, even in ways we didn’t know about,” ACLU legislative director Mary Dixon said. “While you can, with great difficulty, change your Social Security number, you cannot change your unique biological identifier.”

The Snapchat case fits the intention behind BIPA, Dixon said.

In May, Link proposed a revision to the act that would exclude physical and digital photographs from the definition of “biometric identifiers.” With the revision, the law would only protect biometric information gathered from in-person processes, not digital scans.

Katrina Carroll, an attorney representing the two men, said the change was proposed as a result of extensive lobbying by Facebook and Google, which are also being sued for their handling of biometric identifiers.

Link could not be reached for comment.

The amendment to the biometrics law was put on hold in May. If it eventually passes, it could prevent future lawsuits like the ones lodged against Snapchat, Google and Facebook, and threaten the cases already filed against those companies, Carroll said.

Snapchat introduced Lenses in September 2015 after acquiring Looksery, a San Francisco-based startup that specializes in facial tracking and modification technologies.

The Lenses animations let users breathe fire, don heart-shaped eyes, wear floppy dog ears and swap faces with friends. To use the feature, they have to give Snapchat access to the phone camera.

When users press and hold a face on the touchscreen, a mask appears around the face to map facial features, identify what they are and pinpoint where they’re located. This process, called object recognition, determines where to overlay special effects.

Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank focused on tech-related public policies, said the technology behind Lenses doesn’t compromise users’ privacy.

Unlike facial recognition technology, object recognition doesn’t identify specific faces, Castro said. Snapchat’s feature merely figures out whether an object is a face and then which facial features are which.

“They’re not trying to say, ‘Is this Sam and is this John?'” Castro said. “They’re just trying to say, ‘Where is the nose in this picture and where is the eye in this picture?'”

Castro added that broadly worded laws such as BIPA hinder technological advancements.

“At some point, companies look at different technology and say, ‘This is regulated too heavily. We’re going to focus product development somewhere else,’” Castro said. “These type of laws limit that innovation and development.”

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