Google won a decisive victory over the weekend in a 2016 case stemming from an alleged violation of the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, Reuters reports. Publicly available documents associated with the case note that the legislation makes it unlawful to collect and store certain types of biometric data without consent. Plaintiffs in the $5 million suit had claimed that Google's Photos application had been involved in those activities without users' permission. In total, they called for up to $5,000 in fees for every instance in which Google intentionally breached the privacy law and as much as $1,000 for every violation resulting from negligence. The search giant argued and US District Judge Edmond Chang agreed that the case should be dismissed on the grounds that no plaintiffs were actually harmed by its use of images uploaded to the service.
One win amidst a series of less decisive outcomes
Google's been no stranger to privacy-driven cases over the past twelve months, facing heavy scrutiny at the global scale but also at home alongside Facebook and Twitter. In at least two instances the company has been forced to stand before legislative branches of the US government to answer questions regarding its privacy policies and how it handles consumer data. In at least one instance, the Alphabet subsidiary was forced to admit that mistakes had been made in its management of that data. Google faced a similar grilling in the EU and in Russia, with outcomes ultimately landing the company with hefty fines and policy changes with regard to requirements for some of its products. For example, in one instance, the company was forced to allow users of its mobile browser Chrome to opt out of Google Search in favor of a competing service. None of those cases appears to have had a significant impact on the company or its bottom line so far and some in the US have been anything but decisive.
A second, more recent hearing for the company saw CEO Sundar Pichai facing allegations of political bias and playing a defensive position regarding its decision to bring a military AI project called Project Maven to an end. Simultaneously, Mr. Pichai questioned about another apparent human rights issue it was alleged to be taking part in through a China-specific search engine codenamed Project Dragonfly. The opposition to Project Dragonfly was also grounded in sentiments about privacy rights since the search engine would have allegedly been subject to oversight by Chinese officials. As a result, it would have also been heavily censored against fairly mundane search terms such as 'Nobel prize winner' or 'student protests' and could have been used to help the authorities track and influence citizens. That project was eventually shuttered but Google was still subject to a great deal of backlash from both the public and its own employees because of the practices it took part in to keep Dragonfly under wraps.
This is a much less complex issue
The latest ruling in favor of the company seems to have been begun from a much less complex starting point to prior cases. Based on the language used to describe the alleged violations, the suit appears to have been brought in response to one of the app's primary features. Google Photos automatically seeks to identify people in photos uploaded to the storage-centric service for sorting and search functionality. The suit alleged that the practice of creating a 'template' for identification using a Photos users' biometric features is a violation of the above-mentioned legislation. As a well-advertised core feature of the app and because the data doesn't appear to have been used outside of that context, the victory isn't necessarily surprising.