Texas sues Facebook's Meta over facial-recognition tech

The state has appealed for the court to fine Meta $25,000 for each breach

Facebook’s stock dropped more than 25 per cent on February 4, wiping out more than $200 billion in the biggest single-day market value decrease for a US company. AP
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The Texas Attorney General's office is suing Facebook’s parent company Meta for billions of dollars over its unauthorised use of facial-recognition technology and harvesting biometric data of people without seeking their consent.

The lawsuit filed by Attorney General Ken Paxton in the state district court on Monday alleges the California-based social networking company’s technology has breached the Texas Capture or Use of Biometric Identifier Act, or Cubi.

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Facebook exploited the personal information of users and non-users alike to grow its empire and reap historic windfall profits
Texas lawsuit

“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 well-being,” Mr Paxton said.

“This is yet another example of Big Tech’s deceitful business practices and it must stop … I will continue to fight for Texans’ privacy and security."

The lawsuit alleges Facebook had collected the biometric data of millions of Texans for commercial purposes and shared it with third parties, without the formal consent from the owners of the data.

It claimed the company stored millions of biometric identifiers such as retina or iris scans, voice prints, and records of hand and face geometry that were extracted from photos and videos that were uploaded by users or their friends on applications such as Facebook and Instagram.

Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the US House financial services committee in Washington. AP

“By this illegal activity, Facebook exploited the personal information of users and non-users alike to grow its empire and reap historic windfall profits," the suit said.

“The company repeatedly captured biometric identifiers without consent billions of times, in knowing violation of Texas’ CUBI Act and the Deceptive Trade Practices Act."

Along with Illinois and Washington, Texas is one of the few US states to have a biometric privacy law. Last year, Facebook paid $650 million in a similar lawsuit over a tagging system in Illinois.

Meta said it shut down its face recognition system across its platforms last year and whenever it provided services powered by facial recognition, people were always provided with notice and control.

"These claims are without merit and we will defend ourselves vigorously," a Meta spokesman told The National.

Texas has appealed for the court to fine Meta $25,000 for each Cubi breach and $10,000 for each breach of the deceptive trade practices act.

The CBUI restrictions, which were approved in 2009, call for obtaining informed consent before gathering any biometric data such as voice samples or facial geometry.

In 2011, nearly 12 million Texans had a Facebook account. The number ballooned to nearly 20.5 million last year.

“The popularity of its brand has made Facebook one of the most valuable companies in the world, with one of the top 10 market capitalisations and revenue of more than $85bn last year,” the lawsuit said.

“But Facebook’s omnipresent empire was built on deception, lies and brazen abuses of Texans’ privacy rights – all for Facebook’s own commercial gain.”

Meta and its billionaire founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg came under increasing criticism over the company’s practices and policies since whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before Congress on October 5, 2021.

Ms Haugen, who began working for the company in 2019 and resigned in April 2021, leaked internal documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Congress and various news outlets.

She told a Senate commerce subcommittee hearing that Facebook algorithms promote posts with high levels of engagement, often pushing harmful or divisive content to users.

In October, the company’s Oversight Board — which was established in November 2018 to promote free expression on Facebook and Instagram — said the social media giant was not being “fully forthcoming” and transparent to users.

It said the company was unclear about how it exempted some high-profile users from its rules.

The new Texas lawsuit alleged Facebook often failed to destroy collected biometric identifiers within a reasonable time, exposing Texans to “ever-increasing risks to their well-being, safety and security”.

It said the company captured biometric information to train and improve its facial-recognition technology and created a powerful artificial intelligence apparatus that reaches all corners of the world and ensnares even those who have intentionally avoided using Facebook services.

Facebook deceived the people by concealing the nature of its practices, Mr Paxton said.

“For over a decade, while holding itself out as a meeting place for Texans to connect and share special moments with family and friends, Facebook was secretly capturing, disclosing and unlawfully retaining — and profiling off of — Texans’ most personal and highly sensitive information.”

The share price of Facebook’s parent company Meta dropped 0.84 per cent to $217.7 at the end of trading on Friday.

The company’s stock dropped more than 25 per cent on February 4, wiping out more than $200 billion in the biggest single-day market value decrease for a US company.

It led to the company’s billionaire founder Mr Zuckerberg losing $29bn of his net worth in one day.

Updated: February 15, 2022, 4:38 AM
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