Activists See Threat, Investors See Cash Cow


Privacy advocates claimed a small victory last week, as a proposed last-minute change to an Illinois face recognition law was withdrawn shortly after being introduced.

Illinois has a strong biometrics privacy law, which requires companies to get consent before collecting biometric data such as face, iris, or fingerprint scans. The change, proposed by Illinois Senator Terry Link and thought to be backed by Facebook or Google, would have modified the law to exempt still photographs, such as those Facebook uses to identify its users and map social networks.

If the revision had passed, the law would only cover “data resulting from an in-person process whereby a part of the body is traversed by a detector or an electronic beam.” It also would have meant that ongoing lawsuits in Illinois against Facebook, Google and Snapchat would be conveniently thrown out.

According to reporting from The Verge, “Facebook applauded the amendment, pointing out that State Senator Link originally introduced the Biometric Information Privacy Act in 2008. ‘We appreciate Sen. Link’s effort to clarify the scope of the law he authored,’ a Facebook representative said. Google did not respond to a request for comment.”

While the withdrawal of this ill-advised amendment is a victory for privacy advocates (as well as pretty much everyone else except Silicon Valley billionaires) it is only a small battle won in a long-running war. Indeed, one of the first reasons mentioned in the text of the 2008 Illinois law as a justification for it being necessary is the growing use of biometrics “in the business and security screening sectors and (it) appears to promise streamlined financial transactions and security screenings.”

That was written in 2008, and its predictions weren’t far off the mark. A press release out today from the firm Research and Markets, for example, forecasts increased use of biometrics in financial transactions as it advertises a report titled “Global Mobile Biometrics Market 2016-2020,” which predicts a compound annual growth rate in this area of more than 100 percent in the 2016-2020 period.

“One trend that will boost market growth,” according to the press release summarizing the report, would be “if facial recognition biometrics is adopted in the BFSI (banking, financial services and insurance) sector. Facial recognition is likely to be used in consumer electronics for analyzing an individual’s facial features to gain access to online transactions and applications. Facial recognition is considered one of the most reliable solutions for verifying an individual’s identity. With an increase in the adoption of consumer electronics and growing acceptance of mobile payments, mobile commerce is gaining traction.”

The report also mentions Apple and Google, along with 3M Cogent, NEC, and Nuance Communications, as “key vendors” in this growing market. A list of more than 30 “other prominent vendors” is also included.

For now, the Illinois biometrics privacy law remains a model for other states to follow. It is becoming increasingly clear, though, that the primary interest of tech companies and investors in influencing similar legislation is solely profit-motivated, with little or no regard for the protection of the public.



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