Why Google Won't Search for Art Look-Alike in Some States

Millions of people across the U.S. downloaded an app over the holiday weekend to see how a Google algorithm matched their selfies to historical artwork. But for many residents of Illinois and Texas, the selfie tool was missing.

The reason? State laws there ban the collection of biometric data, including a record of "face geometry," without a user's consent. Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., is blocking the selfie service in its arts and culture app in Illinois and Texas because of the laws, according to a person familiar with the company.

Google Arts & Culture, which became the No. 1 free app on the Apple Inc. and Google Play app stores over the weekend, is among a growing wave of tech products using software that can recognize faces, from doorbells that identify guests to security cameras that recognize shoplifters to iPhones that unlock with a glance.

Biometric laws pose a challenge to those technologies. In Illinois, dozens of lawsuits related to the biometric law have been filed since it passed in 2008, including one against Google that challenges its Google Photos service, which allows users to search photos by a person's face. Facebook Inc. and Snap Inc. have faced similar lawsuits.

A Google spokesman said the Arts & Culture app uses selfies "only for art matching and nothing else."

The company said 12.8 million people had downloaded the app as of Monday night, with the vast majority occurring over the weekend, when users were taking 450,000 selfies an hour. About 30 Google employees in Paris who built the app were surprised by its sudden success and worked through the weekend to keep it running smoothly, the spokesman said.

Suits have spiked in Illinois because its law lets individuals sue, said Julia Jacobson, a partner at law firm K&L Gates LLP. Texas and Washington state, which passed a less strict biometric law last year, limit that power to their attorneys general.

The pace of litigation in Illinois has quickened with tech companies' adoption of facial-recognition technology, Ms. Jacobson said. More than 50 such lawsuits have been filed in Illinois since June last year, according to a K&L analysis.

"It's simply because the technology is getting better and more commercialized," she said. "It used to be just government technology."

Still, Google's decision to block the art look-alike tool in Illinois and Texas is bizarre because the app requires users' consent just as the states' laws require, said Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center for Privacy & Technology at Georgetown University. It "is a very strange decision," he said.

Before users take a selfie, the Google app requires them to accept its terms, which say that the app matches the user's photo with artwork and that "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."

Google hasn't blocked its Google Photos service in Illinois, although it uses facial recognition and is subject to a lawsuit there. Google also doesn't appear to have blocked the Arts & Culture app's selfie function in Washington. The feature isn't yet available outside the U.S.

Tech firms have argued such biometric laws are overly restrictive. Others say the growing use of biometric data--which can also include things like fingerprints and iris scans--pose a risk for consumers.

Adam Schwartz, a staff attorney at the digital-privacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said "biometrics are a menace to privacy" because "it's very easy for strangers to capture your biometrics and it's very hard for us to do anything about it." Credit-card numbers can be changed, but faces and fingerprints can't, he noted.

China uses facial-recognition in security cameras to track its citizens, and an app in Russia enables users to find the social-media profiles of strangers they photograph.

For now, some users in Illinois, Texas and abroad are trying to get around the ban. Videos posted on YouTube instruct users to use a VPN, or virtual private network, that makes it appear as if their web traffic is coming from somewhere else.

Megan Vo, a 26-year-old mobile-app designer in Chicago, said she downloaded the app over the weekend after friends in New York posted their art doppelgängers. But when she opened it, she said she found art-related articles and interactive programs, but not the art look-alike tool.

"I kept scrolling," she said. "It's a great app with a lot of great resources, but I wanted to take a selfie."

Write to Jack Nicas at jack.nicas@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 17, 2018 08:14 ET (13:14 GMT)