No good deed goes unpunished: Free educational tools ensnare Google in new biometrics lawsuit

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On April 2, two Illinois schoolchildren filed suit against Google in federal court in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, alleging that Google violated the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA) and the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by purportedly collecting scans of the children’s facial geometry and voiceprints for use in Google’s online G Suite for Education platform.

In H.K. and J.C. v. Google, LLC, Case No. 20-cv-02257, the plaintiffs allege that Google gave laptop computers containing Google’s G Suite for Education to school systems around the country, including in Illinois. G Suite for Education is a free, cloud-based educational platform that includes student-friendly versions of tools like Gmail and Google Docs. The plaintiffs claim that children are required to have their faces scanned and voices recorded by the laptop’s camera and microphone in order to use Google’s educational tools. According to the complaint, Google violated BIPA by collecting facial geometry scans and voiceprints without first obtaining parental consent or developing written, publicly available policies that identified Google’s data retention practices and guidelines for destroying collected data. The plaintiffs also allege that:

“Google uses the voiceprints and face templates it collects to…identify and track the children who use its ChromeBook laptops and the ‘G Suite For Education’ platform that comes installed on them,” and that “[t]he unique voiceprints and face templates that Google has collected from children in Illinois and across the country are not only used by Google to identify children by name, they are also used by Google to recognize childrens’ (sic) gender, age, and location.”

The plaintiffs seek between $1,000 and $5,000 in statutory damages for each alleged violation of BIPA on behalf of all students who used Google’s G Suite for Education service in Illinois schools after March 26, 2015. They also ask for an injunction requiring Google to “collect, store, and use the biometric information of children in Illinois in compliance with BIPA, and to permanently destroy the biometric identifiers and biometric information it has collected from Plaintiffs and BIPA Class members to date.”

H.K. and J.C. is yet another BIPA case against Google – which was sued under the same statute earlier this year in connection with its Google Photos service – and it joins the ranks of BIPA cases against other tech giants, like Facebook and Apple. Facebook recently agreed to a potential settlement in a BIPA case filed in the Northern District of California. That case, In re Facebook Biometric Information Privacy Litigation, Case No. 15-cv-03747, concerns Facebook’s alleged scanning of photographs uploaded by Facebook users. Apple also currently is litigating a BIPA case in Cook County, Illinois courts. In Zaluda v. Apple Inc., Case No. 2019 CH 11771, the plaintiff alleges that she and other Illinois residents had their rights under BIPA violated when Apple’s devices recorded their voiceprints to use with Apple’s Siri assistant.

As education and commerce increasingly move online in response to the coronavirus pandemic and away from physical schools and storefronts, every business—from international technology companies to smaller software firms and other employers—should take proactive steps to evaluate their legal obligations and potential defenses under BIPA. McDonald Hopkins has extensive experience defending BIPA claims on behalf of companies across the United States. We encourage you to contact one of our team members to discuss how we can help.

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