Technology

Facebook owner Meta sued by Texas over facial recognition system

The Texas attorney-general is suing Facebook parent Meta for billions of dollars over claims that it harvested and exploited citizens’ biometric data without proper consent through its recently-shuttered facial recognition system.

The complaint filed on Monday by Ken Paxton, Texas attorney-general, accused the social media platform of collecting millions of biometric identifiers gathered from photos and videos posted on the platform “without their informed consent”, in breach of state privacy laws.

This included the face-scan data from Facebook users — as well as people who had not signed up to the platform but were featured in other users’ content — which was gathered in order to train the platform’s facial recognition technology “for its own commercial gain”, the complaint noted.

It also stated that Facebook failed to delete this data within a reasonable timeframe and disclosed this data to third-parties entities “who further exploited it”. 

“Facebook will no longer take advantage of people and their children with the intent to turn a profit at the expense of one’s safety and wellbeing,” Paxton said. “This is yet another example of Big Tech’s deceitful business practices and it must stop.”

The filing accuses Facebook of violating Texas state law “not hundreds, or thousands, or millions of times — but billions of times”. At least $10,000 in civil penalties is being sought for each violation.

Facebook last November announced that it was shuttering its facial recognition system and wiping data harvested from 1bn users. That effectively halted features that allowed users to be automatically notified if they appeared in photos or videos posted by others on the platform, and suggested who to tag in photos and videos.

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Facebook at the time cited growing regulatory scrutiny of the field when it pulled the plug on the system.

Regulators have begun to scrutinise the facial recognition space, highlighting privacy, data security and algorithmic bias concerns, although legislation remains patchy across different jurisdictions.

Last year, Facebook agreed to pay $650mn to settle a class-action lawsuit in Illinois that alleged the company had breached state biometric privacy laws by harvesting facial data for its face-tagging system without permission.

However, facial recognition technology is likely to be crucial to Facebook’s longer-term ambitions to build an immersive digital metaverse inhabited by photorealistic avatars.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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