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Push to Weaken Face Recognition Law Falls Short, For Now

May 31, 2016

There are few rules to limit how companies can collect and store images of our face. Over the long weekend, one of the only U.S. laws that does so, barely survived a stealthy push—allegedly backed by Facebook and Google—to make it toothless.

The law in question is called the Biometric Information Privacy Act and, as Fortune reported on Friday, Illinois lawmakers were posed to ram through an amendment that would have changed the legal definitions of the terms "photographs" and "scan" so as to exclude activities related to digital photo "tagging."

The proposed changes are significant because, under the current definitions, class action lawyers have won a number of victories against tech companies for including consumers' faces in their databases without permission. The scrapbook company Shutterfly (sfly), for instance, quietly settled such a lawsuit in April, while Facebook suffered a significant court defeat on face-scanning earlier this month.

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In response, Facebook (fb) and Google (goog) threw their weight behind a quiet push to neuter the law, according to Chris Dore of the Edelson law firm, which is directing the litigation against Facebook.

The push came in the form of a proposed amendment to a bill unrelated to biometrics. The amendment faltered at a judicial committee hearing on Sunday, according to Dore.

Since the Illinois legislature concludes its current session on Tuesday night, the proposed change is effectively dead for the near future, unless state lawmakers use extraordinary procedures to pass it over the summer.

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A staff member for state Senator Terry Link (D), who put forth the amendment, would only say the change to the biometrics bill is "on hold" while it undergoes further study.

Meanwhile, the tech companies allegedly behind the legal maneuver have been tight-lipped. Facebook on Friday said it appreciated the senator's effort to "clarify the law." On Tuesday, did not respond to a request for comment about the outcome. Google did not respond to request for comment either day.

The ability to scan and identify photos is an integral part of facial recognition technology, which is becoming an integral part of the services Facebook and Google offer their users.

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These services can feel benign such as when a social network recognizes a user's friend by their face, and asks if the user would like to "tag" that person.

But the ominous side of facial recognition has been emerging more and more in 2016. In Russia, for instance, a popular app lets anyone who has a smartphone scan the face of strangers in order to learn their identifies, and potentially contact them online. And in Turkey, law enforcement is using "light bars" that treat citizens' faces in the same way as a scanner can read license plate.

In the United States, an effort led by the Department of Commerce to develop rules for facial recognition tools fell apart in 2015 after privacy groups walked out of the talks. As a result, the Illinois biometrics law is the only real restriction to companies' face scanning ambitions—and that could change if they renew their legal push in the fall.

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