Google launched an app in mid-January allowing users to match selfies with depictions of famous people throughout history. “Google Arts & Culture” quickly became the most popular free application offered on both the Apple and Google platforms. People seem to like the idea of finding out what famous work of art from a museum might match their own likeness.
This application uses the “facial geometry” of a user’s photograph to match the facial geometry of a portrait, perhaps painted by Leonardo Da Vinci or Andy Warhol. This technology is a biometric identifier, because a person cannot change their facial geometry. Last year, Washington State passed two laws governing such biometric identifiers, one focused on state agencies and the others on companies using the photos of Washington State residents. The outward-facing law says that a company cannot enroll a biometric identifier in a data base for a commercial purpose. Notice is also required.
In this case, Google did the right thing by telling its users that it will only use the facial image they supply in order to make the Arts & Culture app function. And they aren’t keeping the image for a commercial purpose, such as selling it to others.
Apparently, state laws in Illinois and Texas took a more restrictive view of such apps and Google decided not to let residents of those states download it.
This type of development speaks to the importance of crafting laws that strike a good balance between innovation and privacy. Google innovated here and created a fun app that people want to use, but they didn’t run afoul of privacy considerations, at least in Washington State. This balanced approach will allow us to remain a tech leader.