Since its enactment a decade ago, the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA) has seen a recent spike in attention from employees and consumers alike. This is due, in large part, to the technological advancements that businesses use to service consumers and keep track of employee time.

What Is The BIPA?

Intending to protect consumers, Illinois was the first state to enact a statute to regulate use of biometric information. The BIPA regulates the collection, use, safeguarding, handling, storage, retention, and destruction of biometric identifiers and information. The statute defines biometric identifiers to include a retina or iris scan, fingerprint, or scan of hand or face geometry. Furthermore, the statute defines biometric information as any information, regardless of how it is captured, converted, stored, or shared, based on an individual’s biometric identifier used to identify an individual. Any person aggrieved by a violation of the act may sue to recover actual or statutory damages or other appropriate relief. A prevailing party may also recover attorneys’ fees and costs.

Since September of 2017, there have been more than thirty-five class action BIPA lawsuits with no particular industry being targeted. More commonly sued industries include healthcare facilities, manufacturing and hospitality.

The drastic increase in litigation is largely contributable to employers’ attempt to prevent “buddy punching,” a term that references situations where employees punch in for a co-worker where biometric data is not required to clock in or out. For example, in Howe v. Speedway LLC, the class alleges that defendants violated the BIPA by implementing a finger-operated clock system without informing employees about the company’s policy of use, storage and ultimate destruction of the fingerprint data. Businesses engaging in technological innovation have also come under attack from consumers. In Morris v. Wow Bao LLC, the class alleges that Wow Bao unlawfully used customers’ facial biometrics to verify purchases at self-order kiosks.

Recent Precedent

In Rivera v. Google Inc.,the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois explained that a “biometric identifier” is a “set of biometric measurements” while “biometric information” is the “conversion of those measurements into a different, useable form.” The court reasoned that “[t]he affirmative definition of “biometric information” does important work for the Privacy Act; without it, private entities could evade (or at least arguably could evade) the Act’s restrictions by converting a person’s biometric identifier into some other piece of information, like mathematical representation or, even simpler, a unique number assigned to a person’s biometric identifier.” Thus, a company could be liable for the storage of biometric information, in any form, including an unreadable algorithm.

More recently, in Rosenbach v. Six Flags, the Illinois Appellate Court, Second District, confirmed that the BIPA is not a strict liability statute that permits recovery for mere violation. Instead, consumers must prove actual harm to sue for a BIPA violation. The court reasoned that the BIPA provides a right of action to persons “aggrieved” by a statutory violation, and an aggrieved person is one who has suffered an actual injury, adverse action, or harm. Vague allegations of harm to privacy are insufficient. The court opined that, if the Illinois legislature intended to allow for a private cause of action for every technical violation of the BIPA, the legislature could have omitted the word “aggrieved” and stated that every violation was actionable. The court’s holding that actual harm is required is consistent with the holdings of federal district courts on this issue.

Damages and Uncertainty

Plaintiffs and their counsel are attracted to the BIPA because it provides for significant statutory damages as well as attorneys’ fees and costs. The BIPA allows plaintiffs to seek $1,000 for each negligent violation, and $5,000 for each intentional or reckless violation, plus attorneys’ fees and costs.

To date, all claims have been filed as negligence claims, and, thus, it is unclear what a plaintiff must show to establish an intentional violation. Similarly, the law is unsettled on whether the statutory damages are awarded per claim or per violation. A per violation rule would exponentially increase a defendant’s potential liability. For example, some plaintiffs are currently seeking $1,000 or $5,000 for each swipe of a fingerprint to clock in or out.

How To Protect Your Business

To avoid a costly mistake when retaining biometric data, businesses should:

  1. provide employers or consumers with a detailed written policy that includes why and how the data will be collected, stored, retained, used, and destroyed;
  2. require a signed consent before collecting the data;
  3. implement a security protocol to protect the data; and
  4. place an appropriate provision in vendor contracts (e.g., for data storage) to require vendors to adhere to the law and report any data breaches.

Consent can be obtained in different ways. For example, employers may condition employment upon an individual’s consent to a data retention policy, and companies can require consumers to accept a click-through consent before accessing a company’s website or application.