In an opinion issued today (January 25, 2019), the Illinois Supreme Court found that a Six Flags season pass holder can claim a violation of the state’s biometric privacy law by collecting the thumbprint of plaintiff Stacy Rosenbach’s son without permission, even without alleging any actual harm. This is an important ruling that could impact hundreds of similar pending cases.
In a unanimous decision, the court wrote that Rosenbach’s son can be considered an “aggrieved person” under the state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act (“BIPA”) based on a technical violation of the statute and without alleging that her son’s data was stolen or misused.
Under the statute, “aggrieved persons” may file a right of action and recovery for each violation the greater of $1000 liquidated damages or actual damages, reasonable attorney fees and costs, and any other relief, including an injunction, that the court deems appropriate. The central issue was whether one qualifies as an “aggrieved person” if he or she has not alleged some actual injury or adverse effect, beyond violation of his or her rights under the statute. In the lower appellate court’s view, “a plaintiff who alleges only a technical violation of the statute without alleging some injury or adverse effect is not an aggrieved person”. 2017 IL App (2d 18-317, P 23). Today, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed and remanded the appellate court’s decision for further proceedings.
The Six Flags fingerprinting system involved two steps. First, the pass holder went to a security checkpoint, where he was asked to scan his thumb into the biometric data capture system. After that, he was directed to a nearby administrative building, where he obtained a season pass card. The card and his thumbprint, when used together, enabled him to gain access as a season pass holder. Upon returning home, the son was asked by plaintiff Rosenbach for the booklet or paperwork he had been given in connection with his new season pass. The son responded that Six Flags did “it all by fingerprint now” and that no paperwork has been provided. The complaint alleged that neither the son, who was 14 years old and thus a minor, nor the plaintiff mother Rosenbach, were informed in writing or any other way of the specific purpose and length of term for which his finger print had been collected or that they sign any written release regarding taking of the fingerprint. Moreover, neither of them consented in writing “to the collection, storage, use, sale, lease, dissemination, disclosure, redisclosure, or trade of, or for [defendants] to otherwise profit from, [son’s] thumbprint or associated biometric identifiers or information.”
The defendants sought dismissal, among other grounds, that the plaintiff had suffered no actual or threatened injury and therefore lacked standing to sue. In rejecting this position, the court noted that, “[w]hen the General Assembly has wanted to impose such a requirement in other situations, it had made that intention clear”, citing Illinois’s consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, which requires actual damage to bring a private right of action. See 815 ILCS 505/10a(a) (Action for actual damages). In contrast, Illinois’s AIDS Confidentiality Act (410 ILCS 305/1) did not require proof of actual damages in order to recover. The court noted that Section 20 of the Act in question, followed the latter model, providing simply that “[a]ny person aggrieved by a violation of this Act shall have a right of action in a State circuit court or as a supplemental claim in federal district court against an offending party.”
The court then discussed the historical and popular use of the term “aggrieved”, concluding that it was sufficient that the plaintiff’s legal rights were adversely affected. Specifically, the Act codified that individuals possess right to privacy in and control over their biometric identifiers, and when a private entity fails to comply with one of those requirements, that violation “constitutes an invasion, impairment, or denial of the statutory rights of any person or customer whose biometric identifier or biometric information is subject to the breach.” Therefore, such a person or customer would “clearly be ‘aggrieved’ within the meaning of Section 20 of the Act” and entitled to seek recovery. The court added that the appellate court’s characterization of the violation as merely technical in nature “misapprehends the nature of the harm our legislature is attempting to combat through this legislation”, noting that these procedural protections “are particularly crucial in our digital world because technology now permits the wholesale collection and storage of an individual’s unique biometric identifiers – identifiers that cannot be changed if compromised or misused.” When a private entity fails to adhere to these statutory procedures, “the right of the individual to maintain [his or] her biometric privacy vanishes into thin air. The precise harm the Illinois legislature sought to prevent is then realized.” For these reasons, the court stated, the procedural injury is “real and significant”.