Starting in December of last year, social media was full of more selfies than usual. That's when the Google Arts and Culture app launched its image-matching feature. Here's how it works. A user opens the app, finds the "Is My Portrait in a Museum?" prompt, and snaps a selfie with her camera. The image is uploaded into the Google cloud which then works its Google magic to find her doppelganger in a vast collection of digitized paintings culled from museums throughout the world. All of this sounds like a fun and harmless diversion, and, indeed, the app's sudden rise to the top of the charts attests to it widespread popularity. However, some worry that the app is inherently risky, and they question how Google will use the data it collects. In other words, the app is free, but at what cost to the user. In some jurisdictions, including Texas (and Illinois), biometric privacy protections are codified into the law in attempt to address exactly these concerns.
The use of facial recognition data for identification purposes is expressly prohibited in the Texas Business & Commerce Code, Section 503.001 unless certain requirements are met. Namely, the person or company who collects the biometric data must (1) inform the individual before capturing the biometric identifier and (2) receive the individual's consent. The Google Arts and Culture app does indeed prompt the user to accept the privacy agreement and states that Google "will only store your photo for the time it takes to search for matches." Nevertheless, Google has blocked the selfie-matching feature in Texas (and Illinois) fearing, presumably, the imposition of a $25,000 fine per violation of the Texas law.
It's been suggested that this denial of service may be Google's way of signaling to states who restrict the use of certain technologies that they won't be able share in all the benefits that tech companies have to offer. Perhaps it's a snub to those who won't cooperate with the tech giants by permitting the legal collection and use of biometric data. In any case, concerns about the collection of facial geometry data by Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others are very real, and although no federal laws yet exist to prohibit the use and retention of such data, this area of the law is sure to develop as the technology advances. Until then, there are ways to circumvent the Google restrictions in Texas and to find your look-alike in the art of the world. Have fun...if you dare!