Google’s Arts and Culture app was the latest app flavor of the week. Users upload a selfie, Google scans the biometrics of the image and matches it to a famous work of art. From Maine to California, people used the app and found their likenesses in portraits painted centuries ago by a variety of portrait artists. But people in Illinois and in Texas couldn’t join in on the fun. Google disabled the app in those states because of biometric privacy laws, or at least that is what lawyers suspect. Google has not released an official statement regarding the app blackout. But the app’s absence in some states has caused news syndicates to probe a bit deeper into biometric privacy laws.
NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly interviewed Matthew Kluger who teaches law at Northwestern University. According to Kluger, in Illinois and Texas, tech companies are required to disclose how biometric data is used and users must grant the companies permission, but there are no current all-encompassing disclosures and it seems Illinois and Texas require a bit more than a generic “I agree.”
Kelly mentioned that the app does have a disclosure. She quotes, “Google won’t use data from your photo for any other purpose and will only store your photo for the time it takes to search for matches.”
This disclosure seems fairly direct, but Kluger told Kelly that Google is likely acting on “an abundance of caution” due to ongoing litigation in Illinois.
There is another issue as well, who gets the data. In the state of Illinois, there is ongoing litigation to determine what happens to biometric data in the event that the company owning the data goes bankrupt. Can biometric information be legally sold to a third party without the individual’s knowledge?
Another wrinkle in biometric privacy law has to do with user identification. If someone were to snap a photo of another person or use someone else’s photo for the Arts and Culture app without that individual’s knowledge, that would be a violation of privacy. Google and other app developers would have to put fail safes in place to catch those kinds of activities.
In the meantime, Illinois residents can always cross into Indiana, Missouri, Iowa or Kentucky to find out their portrait doppelganger. Unfortunately, people in the great big state of Texas might have a farther drive.