Everybody’s talking about the Google Arts & Culture app, which matches users’ faces to those depicted in paintings collected in Google’s Arts & Culture online museum. By tapping into the heart of our culture’s zeitgeist – vanity – the app has generated enthusiasm verging on the collective embrace of Pokemon Go a couple of years ago – but thanks to uncertainty around the legal side of biometric technology, it’s not available to everyone.
The app is, of course, based on facial recognition – users upload their photos by taking a smartphone selfie, and then an algorithm tries to find a good match among the various works of art that have been scanned into Google’s massive library. While that may seem harmless enough, Google has disabled the app in Illinois and Texas, the only two states in the US with biometric privacy laws on the books. Nor is the app available in Canada, where concerns about biometric privacy laws have also affected the kind of biometric software that Facebook is willing to launch in the country.
In Google’s own announcement of its Arts & Culture app, the company was keen to note that “Google doesn’t use your selfie for anything else and only keeps it for the time it takes to search for matches.” While that would seem to cover at least some of its bases, the legal liabilities it faces in Illinois, Texas, and elsewhere are evidently still too high to risk a release; speaking to NPR, Northwestern University law professor Matthew Kugler speculates that “Google is showing an abundance of caution here.”
Thus while Google’s new app helps to demonstrate both the increasing prominence of biometric technology in mainstream culture and consumers’ willingness to embrace it, as they have with Apple’s Face ID system, it also helps to illustrate the murky regulatory climate around these exciting new technologies. That, in turn, could help to push private sector companies to work more with government bodies to figure out what kinds of rules will work best for everyone. In the meantime, residents of Illinois and Texas will need to do some travelling to make sure they don’t miss out on the latest mobile craze.
January 19, 2018 – by Alex Perala