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Texas Sues Facebook Over Its Use of Facial Recognition

Last year, Facebook shut down its facial recognition system, citing societal concerns and regulatory uncertainty.

Angela Lang/CNET

Texas is suing Meta, the parent company of Facebook, over the social network's past use of facial recognition technology. The suit, filed Monday by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, accuses Facebook of violating the state's privacy laws by capturing biometric data on tens of millions of Texans without properly obtaining consent. 

"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," said Paxton in a release. "This is yet another example of Big Tech's deceitful business practices and it must stop."

Facial recognition technology, which converts face scans into identifiable data, has become a growing privacy and civil rights concern. In November, Facebook said it would shut down its facial recognition system and delete the face scan data of more than 1 billion users. The company said the decision was spurred by societal concerns and regulatory uncertainty about facial recognition technology. 

The move marked a major shift away from the controversial technology that Facebook incorporated into features such as giving people the option to receive automatic notifications when they appear in photos and videos posted by others, or suggesting tags by using scans of previously uploaded photos to match people in new shots. 

By the time Facebook announced it would shutter its facial recognition system, the company had secretly exploited Texans and their personal information for more than a decade, the lawsuit alleges. 

"Little did users know that when they answered the simple question of who was in the photograph, they were helping to teach Facebook's facial-recognition technology to better map and recognize human faces for the benefits of Facebook's commercial endeavors -- and to the detriment of users' and nonusers' personal safety and security," the lawsuit states. 

Facial recognition technology could be abused by stalkers and criminals to gather information about a target or locate their social media accounts, the lawsuit points out. Governments have also use the technology to surveil people, and the technology has a harder time identifying minorities.

This isn't the first time Facebook has been accused of violating a state's privacy law. 

In February 2021, Facebook settled a class action lawsuit involving its use of facial recognition technology in its photo-tagging feature for $650 million. The lawsuit alleged the scans were created without user consent and violated Illinois' Biometric Information Privacy Act.

The new lawsuit alleges that Facebook captured Texans' biometric data without consent "billions of times" and exposed their personal information "to other entities who further exploited it" without users' knowledge. An estimated 20.5 million Texans are on Facebook, according to the lawsuit. Texas will seek civil penalties in the "hundreds of billions of dollars," according to The Wall Street Journal, which earlier reported on the lawsuit. 

The lawsuit accuses the social media giant of violating a Texas biometric privacy law because the company didn't receive consent from both Facebook and Instagram users to capture facial data and failed to destroy biometric data in a "reasonable time." Called the Texas Capture of Use of Biometrics Identifier Act, the law states that an entity must destroy biometric data no later than a year after the purpose for capturing the information expires. The lawsuit also alleges that Facebook engaged in false, misleading or deceptive acts by failing to inform users about the biometric data collection, violating a state consumer protection law.

In an emailed statement Monday, a Meta spokesperson said that the "claims are without merit" and that the company will defend itself "vigorously."