Snapchat Runs Into Trouble With Illinois’ Biometrics Law

Snapchat has just been sued by a man from Illinois over charges that the app stores biometric information taken from its users without their permission. This is a serious charge that involves not only the privacy of the individual but the extent to which technology can go without users realizing they are being taken advantage of. The case was filed as Jose Martinez vs Snapchat in May of this year. It was originally filed in Los Angeles County and was moved to a Federal Court at Snapchat’s behest.

Snapchat acquired a Ukrainian app called Looksery in September 2015 for $150 million, the largest acquisition in the history of the country. That allowed them to create the app called Lenses. This is one of the most popular features of Snapchat and allows users to create animated additions around their faces such as rabbit ears and dog noses and big eyes etc. According to the lawsuit, this would require Snapchat to save a person’s biometric identifiers and that is the problem.

Jose Martinez’s lawyers claim that Snapchat never informed its users what it was doing or for how long their biometric identifiers were to be saved.

A similar suit was filed against Facebook last year on April 1, 2015, by a man from Chicago who objected over Facebook’s Tag Suggestions feature. He argued that the feature’s specifics weren’t mentioned in Facebook’s privacy policy and that the social network actively concealed the way it gathered biometric information about its users. Effectively, this would allow them to construct the world’s largest database of facial recognition data. This, the man said, was in direct violation of Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA).

However, according to Yana Welinder, a lawyer and legal fellow from Stanford, the two lawsuits may not be the same at all. She argues that the technology Snapchat has used may just be like the facial recognition technology that is used by digital cameras.

Snapchat’s comment on the situation was:

Contrary to the claims of this frivolous lawsuit, we are very careful not to collect, store or obtain any biometric information or identifiers about our community.

Serious Technology

It’s one of the silliest features in any app ever, but the Lenses option in Snapchat has some serious technology behind it. The feature involves scanning a person’s face obviously but it also accounts for the thousands of face types around the world. It has to account for all the different shapes and edges incorporating an individuals face and then fit the animated additions at the right place. It does this by taking an average shape of a person’s face extracted from thousands of photographs around the world and adjusts it on to the subject’s face. It then corrects for error and creates a digital mesh around the subject’s face to place the silly animations.

This tech has actually been around for quite some time. It was first called Rapid Object Detection in a paper published in 2001. However, the precision and processing power it takes to do it in real time has only recently become possible.