Facebook reached a $550 million privacy settlement with Illinois. It could mean this much money for each user.
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Facebook reached a $550 million privacy settlement with Illinois. It could mean this much money for each user.

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Facebook will pay $550 million to Illinois users to settle allegations that its facial tagging feature violated their privacy rights.

The settlement -- which could amount to a couple of hundred dollars for each user that is part of the class action settlement -- stems from a federal lawsuit filed in Illinois nearly five years ago that alleges the social media giant violated a state law protecting residents’ biometric information. Biometric information can include data from facial, fingerprint and iris scans.

Illinois has one of the strictest biometric privacy laws in the nation. The 2008 law mandates that companies collecting such information obtain prior consent from consumers, detailing how they’ll use it and how long it will be kept. The law also allows private citizens to sue.

A federal court judge in San Francisco, where the lawsuit was moved, must approve the settlement. Those eligible to claim a portion of the settlement will be notified later, said Jay Edelson, founder and CEO of Edelson PC, one of the law firms representing the plaintiffs.

“We are expecting a record number of claims to be filed,” Edelson said. “But even with that, we think that the class members are going to get a good amount of money.”

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Edelson declined to speculate on how much money would be issued to each person, saying the final payout will depend on how many users make claims. But with millions of Facebook users in Illinois impacted, each individual could receive a payout of a couple of hundred dollars.

In 2018, a judge defined the class as Facebook users in Illinois from whom the Menlo Park, Calif.-based company created a stored face template after June 7, 2011, the date Facebook said its tag suggestion feature was available in most countries.

The feature uses facial recognition software to match users’ new photos with other photos they’re tagged in. It groups similar photos together and suggests the names of friends in the photos.

Facebook had argued that its collection of biometric information did not harm individuals, and that they do not have grounds to sue under Illinois’ biometrics law.

“We decided to pursue a settlement as it was in the best interest of our community and our shareholders to move past this matter," Facebook spokesman Dina El-Kassaby said in a statement.

The settlement is a win for privacy advocates who say that protecting biometric information is critical because, unlike a credit card number, it can’t be changed if it’s stolen.

“This pretty firmly establishes the fact that those harms are real and consumers deserve restitution when their rights have been violated,” said Abe Scarr, director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy organization.

Edelson said that biometrics, which are increasingly used, need to be used responsibly. That means consumers must know when they give up biometric information, and how it’s being used, he said.

“In our view Silicon Valley is really sprinting to create a world where we are tracked everywhere we go, and that’s a different world," Edelson said. “That’s scary to us.”

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