Instagram is facing a fine of up to $US500 billion as part of a class action lawsuit alleging the social media giant illegally harvested the biometric data of its users.

The lawsuit relates to an Illinois law that bans the unauthorised collection of biometric data, and Instagram’s alleged use of a face-tagging tool.

It comes just a month after Facebook, which owns Instagram, offered to pay $US650 million to settle a similar class action lawsuit relating to the use of facial recognition technology for photo-tagging on Facebook, without the users’ consent.

The new suit is being led by Kelly Whalen, an Illinois resident who has been using Instagram regularly since 2011. She alleges that Instagram employs a face-tagging tool that uses facial recognition technology to identify people, then create a “face template” that is stored in its database.

“Once Facebook captures its Instagram users’ protected biometrics, it uses them to bolster its facial recognition abilities across all of its products, including the Facebook application, and shares this information among various entities,” the lawsuit claims.

“Facebook does all of this without providing any of the required notices or disclosures required by Illinois Law.”

While Instagram’s terms of service does require consent from its users for face-tagging, the lawsuit alleges that the tool automatically scans the faces of everyone in a photo posted on Instagram, even if they don’t use the service and haven’t agreed to the terms of service. They claim this breaches the Illinois law that bans the collection of biometric data without the knowledge and consent of the individuals.

A Facebook spokesperson hit back against the allegations.
“This suit is baseless,” the spokesperson said. “Instagram doesn’t use Face Recognition technology.”

If Instagram loses the lawsuit, it could be forced to pay up to $US5,000 per violation if it is found to have acted recklessly or intentionally, and this could apply to as many as 100 million users.

This means Facebook is facing a potential fine of $US500 billion.

It’s a very similar case to one that Facebook offered to settle for $US650 million last month. That one related to a number of Facebook users accusing Facebook of violating the same biometrics law through the collection of biometric data using the “tag suggestions” feature.

The class action lawsuit, launched in 2015, related to a feature introduced in 2011 which claimed Facebook used facial recognition technology to allow users to recognise their Facebook friends from previously uploaded photos. The tool analysed the details of people’s faces, including the distance between their eyes, their nose and other features.

The company then kept a database of the face templates it collected through the tool. Facebook users were able to opt out of the service.

Facebook had reached a $USD550 million settlement in January, but raised this amount by another $US100 million last month. Each impacted Facebook user is set to receive between $200 and $400 each as part of the settlement.

Instagram was also in hot water last month after an iOS update appeared to show the app using an iPhone’s camera even when the user wasn't taking a photo. Facebook quickly said that this was a bug and that the app does “not access your camera in those instances, and no content is recorded”.