The company formerly known as Facebook has plenty of secrets. The very public fact that it has used facial recognition to encourage users to tag themselves and their friends in pictures is, however, not one of them — at least, not for anyone who has used Facebook over the last decade.
And yet, according to The Wall Street Journal, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is suing Meta, arguing that the company has been "secretly harvesting" Texans' photos and videos and applying facial recognition capabilities to them, in violation of state laws regarding the collection of biometric data.
“For over a decade, while holding itself out as a trusted meeting place for Texans to connect and share special moments with family and friends, Facebook was secretly capturing, disclosing, unlawfully retaining — and profiting off of — Texans’ most personal and highly sensitive information: records of their facial geometries, which Texas law refers to as biometric identifiers,” the state complaint reads, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The suit follows a $650 million settlement Facebook reached with Illinois as part of a 2015 class action alleging the company violated that state's biometric privacy law. Whether Meta violated Texas' law, which requires informed consent in order to capture biometric information, will be up for the Texas courts to decide. But the argument that Facebook was in any way doing this collection in secret, as Paxton alleges, borders on absurd.
Since the very public launch of tag suggestions in 2010, Facebook users have been invited to tag their friends in pictures, which is as clear a sign as any that Facebook can, well, recognize their faces in those pictures. In 2017 and 2019, in response to that Illinois suit, Facebook introduced new controls for facial recognition, allowing users to turn the setting on or off. In a truly lousy act of secret-keeping, Facebook publicly described how it all works in a 2017 blog post, writing: "Our technology analyzes the pixels in photos you’re already tagged in and generates a string of numbers we call a template. When photos and videos are uploaded to our systems, we compare those images to the template." Then last year, the company again announced it was shutting down facial recognition capabilities on Facebook in a super-secret, on-the-record interview with The New York Times.
That decision stemmed from the persistent regulatory scrutiny the company has been under and its executives' interest in refocusing the brand around privacy. If the Texas suit is any indication, the rebrand hasn't quite caught on. Meta may still have to pay for the decisions it made more than a decade ago — whether those decisions were made in secret or not.
This story was updated to clarify Facebook's multiple releases of facial recognition controls.