Microsoft and Amazon Facing Facial Recognition Privacy Lawsuits

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Microsoft and Amazon Facing Facial Recognition Privacy Lawsuits
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Amazon and Microsoft are facing nearly identical lawsuits regarding allegations that these companies are unlawfully collecting biometric data to improve their technology’s facial recognition software. These are not the first nor are they expected to be the last of the big-tech privacy lawsuits cropping up in recent months.

Facial recognition uses artificial intelligence to identify users based on biometric data.

According to the order granting the lawsuit motion to continue against Amazon, facial recognition software uses computer artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to “detect, recognize, verify, and understand characteristics of humans’ faces.” However, just as humans need practice to perfect a new skill, the software needs to be fed an array of faces in order to improve its accuracy. This need for diversified collections of photos documenting people’s faces resulted in Yahoo! compiling a dataset out of images uploaded to photo-sharing site Flickr by everyday users; this dataset was reportedly made available to the public for the purpose of improving facial recognition technology.

Out of this dataset, IBM then selected one million images to create a new dataset titled Diversity in Faces, “in an effort to reduce bias in facial recognition.” The images in this collection were analyzed for features such as “facial geometry... craniofacial distances, areas and ratios, facial symmetry and contrast, skin color, age and gender predictions”. This final dataset was then made available to other companies like Amazon and Microsoft looking to improve their facial recognition software for different technologies.

Plaintiffs were allegedly not informed that their photos would be used in this way.

The alleged privacy violations occur in that the Flickr users whose photos were uploaded into Amazon’s facial recognition program were not informed. Amazon and Microsoft allegedly made no effort to inform or obtain permission from the plaintiffs whose personal photos made up the bulk of the facial recognition database. It should also be noted that, according to the complaint against Amazon, “Those with the dataset, and the corresponding information, could ‘identify the Flickr user who uploaded the photograph,’ ‘view the Flickr user’s homepage,’ and ‘view each photograph’s metadata, including any available [information] relating to where the photograph was taken or uploaded.’” The plaintiffs argue that this constitutes a significant invasion of privacy, especially to occur on such a grand scale without the awareness of so many plaintiffs.

These lawsuits allege that the defendants violated Illinois’s Biometric Information Privacy Act.

Currently, only a few states have laws regarding biometric data usage; Illinois in particular has expansive standards set forth in the state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA). BIPA prohibits companies from collecting and obtaining biometric data without obtaining a written release from the subject(s), as well as prohibiting individuals from unlawfully profiting from subjects’ biometric data.

Amazon tried to have the lawsuit dismissed by pointing out that BIPA is only intended to cover transactions that occur in Illinois; while the court agreed that this was true, with the complications presented by internet transactions, this was not considered enough of a reason to dismiss the case. Plaintiffs in these lawsuits are seeking $5,000 per BIPA violation as well as an injunction preventing the tech giants from engaging in similar conduct in the future.

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