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Hey, Siri: What's a class action? Apple targeted under IL biometrics law for Siri 'voiceprints'

October 21, 2019

Jonathan Bilyk | Cook County Record, CHICAGO, IL (October 16, 2019) -- Apple has now joined the ranks of the tech giants hit with a class action in Illinois under the state’s biometric information privacy law, as a group of trial lawyers have taken aim at the company’s deployment of its Siri virtual assistant.

On Oct. 10, attorneys with the firms of Miller Shakman Levine & Feldman, of Chicago, and Silver Golub & Teitell, of Stamford, Conn., filed a class action complaint in Cook County Circuit Court against the Cupertino, Calif.-based technology titan.

The named plaintiff in the action is Deborah Zaluda, identified only as a resident of Illinois.

The lawsuit targets Apple’s use of its voice-activated A.I., Siri, which is enabled across its spectrum of smart products, including its iPhones and Apple Watches.

First introduced in 2011, Siri fields spoken voice queries, allowing users to interact with Apple’s platforms to answer questions and obtain recommendations in a conversational fashion.

Before using Siri, users are instructed to create a “User Profile” by repeating a set of five phrases, essentially to allow Siri to record a user’s voice and learn to recognize it.

According to the complaint, Siri “also records and analyzes the user’s first 40 requests in the same way and stores the resulting data.”

The complaint said this means Apple, through Siri, creates and stores a “voiceprint” for each user, allowing Apple, through Siri, to identify each user.

However, the lawsuit accuses Apple of creating these voiceprints in violation of an Illinois privacy law. The lawsuit asserts the law, known as the Biometric Information Privacy Act, requires companies, like Apple, to obtain written authorization from users before creating and storing biometric identifiers, like voiceprints. The lawsuit said Apple has not done so, and also has not notified users of its policies for storing, sharing and ultimately destroying the voiceprints and other electronically stored biometric data.

The lawsuit seeks damages of $1,000-$5,000 per violation, as spelled out in the BIPA law. Some observers have said each violation could be defined as each time a user’s voiceprint is created, saved or scanned.

While the lawsuit is the first to target Apple’s use of Siri under BIPA, a large and growing number of class actions have been brought against hundreds of businesses of a host of sizes and across industries under the BIPA law.

Other big tech companies targeted under BIPA have included Facebook and Shutterfly, sued over allegations their photo tagging features violate the BIPA-created rights of Illinois users whose facial geometry has been scanned, saved and stored for use in identifying them in photos uploaded and shared to social media and photo sharing platforms.

Recently, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California rejected Facebook’s attempt to sidestep a class action under BIPA, which originated in Cook County court and was transferred to federal court in San Francisco.

Facebook could face “tens of billions” of dollars in damages as a result of the class action, according to the trial lawyers with the firm of Edelson P.C., in Chicago, who filed that lawsuit.

A continuously growing number of employers in Illinois have also been targets of BIPA class actions, as the lawsuits have accused the employers of violating the law by requiring employees to scan fingerprints or use other biometric identifiers to either punch the clock at work or access secure areas, such as drug storage areas in hospitals or rail yards.

Earlier this year, the Illinois Supreme Court opened the way for many new actions, and laid the basis for the Ninth Circuit’s ruling by finding plaintiffs don’t need to prove they were harmed in any concrete way, such as by having their identity stolen or data exposed in a breach, before filing suit. Rather, the Illinois Supreme Court, merely failing to notify employees of their biometric data retention policies could place companies of all sizes on the hook for potentially millions or even billions of dollars in damages.

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