In Brief

Why Google’s Art Selfie App Doesn’t Work in Texas and Illinois

Both states have strict user privacy laws governing the use of biometric identifiers like scans of facial geometry.

(graphic Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Since last week, thousands of users in the US have posted images of their selfies alongside their more-or-less matching art historical doppelgängers, as identified by the Google Arts & Culture app. However, some users are missing out on the fun because of their states’ strict laws governing biometrics, which includes things like the facial scanning technology upon which Google’s app relies. (The feature is not available at all outside the US, though there are workarounds.)

Google has not publicly commented on the selfie feature’s absence from the app for users in Illinois and Texas, nor has the tech giant replied to Hyperallergic’s inquiries about the issue. However, the Chicago Tribune reports that the reason is likely that both states have very strict laws governing biometric identifiers — which include “a retina or iris scan, fingerprint, voiceprint, or scan of hand or face geometry,” under the terms of the Illinois legislation.

Illinois’s Biometric Information Privacy Act and Texas’s Business and Commerce Code law covering biometric identifiers, passed in 2008 and 2009, respectively, require specific consent from users for their biometric data to be used for commercial purposes and stipulate that biometric identifiers can only be kept for a year. In a post on its blog, The Keyword, Google states that the app “doesn’t use your selfie for anything else and only keeps it for the time it takes to search for matches.”

In Illinois, the legislation also allows individual users to sue tech companies for violating the Biometric Information Privacy Act, whereas most other states (including Texas) only allow the attorney general to pursue legal action. Google and other companies, including Shutterfly, have been sued in Illinois over their use of users’ data in facial recognition software and other processes involving biometric identifiers.

When they were passed, the laws in Illinois and Texas were praised as major victories for users’ privacy rights. However, predictably, their passage resulted in a dramatic increase in lobbying by tech companies to avoid other states following suit. To date, only one has, Washington, which passed a law on biometric identifiers in March 2017. Nevertheless, the Google Arts & Culture app’s selfie-matching feature seems to be available in the Evergreen State.

For now, Illinoisans and Texans hoping to find their art historical doppelgängers will have to do so the old-fashioned way: by visiting museums.

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