Meta Hit with Alabama Class Action Lawsuit Over Children’s Privacy Rights on Facebook

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March 10, 2022

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The pressure is mounting for greater protection of children’s data online.

Parents and guardians in Alabama have filed a class action lawsuit seeking billions of dollars in damages from Meta, Facebook’s parent company. The lawsuit claims Meta “illegally harvested, trafficked and stored” images of minors, which violates their privacy rights. 

Filed in  January, the lawsuit alleges that Facebook collected and utilized photos of minors for machine learning purposes and biometric tagging. In doing so, it bolstered the company’s profits while violating child privacy rights laws, according to Trenton Garmon and Erica Kemmer, two lawyers representing the parents. The case is one of a growing number of lawsuits across the US that are aiming to crack down on Meta’s data collection and protect user privacy.

“We have the grandfather case of minors’ privacy rights being breached systematically by cyber spying on Facebook,” Garmon told The Click referring to what he believes is the most substantial evidence of systemic breach of children’s privacy rights by Meta.

Facebook has used facial recognition scanning for years. On its platform, facial recognition was used when users upload photos, which the company allowed users to opt out of.  The platform’s facial recognition scanning has been a controversial subject since its inception, especially among privacy advocates and lawmakers.

In 2020, Facebook agreed to pay $650 million to settle a similar a class action lawsuit in Illinois that claimed the company’s facial recognition feature violated users’ privacy under the state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act. And in February, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit against Meta for using facial recognition on its platforms.

“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,” Paxton said in a press release

Jerome Pesenti, VP of Artificial Intelligence at Meta, announced in a November blog post that Facebook would stop implementing facial recognition and would delete the face scans of more than one billion users.

“We need to weigh the positive use cases for facial recognition against growing societal concerns, especially as regulators have yet to provide clear rules,” he wrote.

In 2018, the value of users’ Facebook data and how much of it one could harvest became more widely known after The New York Times published an investigation into data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica. The story revealed that the third-party company was collecting Facebook data from tens of millions of users without their consent in an effort to help elect former President Donald Trump. A litany of congressional hearings, fines and public uproar erupted out of the scandal in what WIRED’s Issie Lapowsky calls the “great privacy awakening.”

Meta Co-Founder Mark Zuckerberg has been open about the fact that the company sells user data to third-party advertisers for profit.

“Senator, we run ads,” he remarked when Congress asked how Facebook remains free to use.

While the Alabama lawsuit acknowledged Facebook’s announcement to stop facial recognition on its platform, it argues the damage has already been done.

“What they did in the past is make billions of dollars on the data and on the privacy backs of minors,” Garmon, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, told The Click. “We’re not saying that Facebook has hurt every one of these minors in a way that they are scarred for life. But what we are saying is [Meta] profited off of something that was illegal.”

Meta did not respond to The Click’s request for comment. 

Legal Pressure Mounts Nationwide

Big Tech companies have been facing increased pressure to limit or even cease their collection of minors’ data. 

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) was enacted in the US in 1998 to limit the type and amount of data that websites could collect from minors, but the act has been criticized by privacy advocates and politicians for not being enforced enough.

In his first State of the Union address, President Biden called out social media platforms like Facebook for not doing enough to protect children’s privacy rights and called on Congress “to strengthen privacy protections” and “demand tech companies stop collecting personal data on our children.”

In Alabama, cracking down on Meta would likely bring attention to the company’s data center in Huntsville, which the company says it has invested more than $1 billion to build. Meta’s arrival in the state has been praised by the local government for bringing an estimated 200 jobs to the area. Two days before the class action was filed in the state, the local Huntsville government announced it approved Meta’s planned 250-acre expansion of its data center.

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle did not respond to The Click’s request for comment.

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