Attorney General Sues Google Over “indiscriminate collection” of Biometric Data; Compares Company to “Eye of Sauron”

By B.N. Frank

Despite warnings – even about national security – data collection is big business in the U.S. and everybody seems to be doing it until they’re sued or repeatedly publicly shamed.  Of course, this isn’t the first time Google has been sued by a state attorney general for illegal biometric data collection.

From Ars Technica:

Texas compares Google to “Eye of Sauron,” sues over biometric data collection

TX: Google records “faces and voices of both non-consenting users and non-users.”

Jon Brodkin

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Google today over its collection of biometric data in a lawsuit that called one of Google’s facial recognition systems a “modern Eye of Sauron.”

Paxton claims Google violated the Texas Capture or Use of Biometric Identifier Act through its collection of “millions of biometric identifiers, including voiceprints and records of face geometry, from Texans through its products and services like Google Photos, Google Assistant, and Nest Hub Max.” The state law requires getting user consent before capturing biometric identifiers.

“Google’s indiscriminate collection of the personal information of Texans, including very sensitive information like biometric identifiers, will not be tolerated,” Paxton said in a press release today.

The lawsuit was filed in Midland County District Court. “Google has now spent years unlawfully capturing the faces and voices of both non-consenting users and non-users throughout Texas—including our children and grandparents, who simply have no idea that their biometric information is being mined for profit by a global corporation,” it says.

“Modern Eye of Sauron”

The Lord of the Rings reference came in the lawsuit’s description of the Face Match feature on Nest Hub Max. “Face Match uses facial-recognition technology to allow the Nest Hub Max to see who is using the device and to populate user-specific content based on whom the device sees,” the lawsuit said, continuing:

For Face Match to work, the Nest Hub Max’s camera is designed to be a modern Eye of Sauron—constantly watching and waiting to identify a face it knows. This means the Google device indiscriminately captures the face geometry of any Texan who happens to come into view, including non-users who have never authorized Google to capture their biometric information and who, in all likelihood, may not even know Google is doing so. And, as with Google Photos, this means Google captures the biometric information of Texan children, who may be drawn by curiosity to stand in front of the Nest Hub Max as the camera watches and analyzes them.

The lawsuit also objects to the voice recognition software used with Google Assistant. “When activated, Google Assistant begins recording and storing voiceprints for every voice it can detect,” the lawsuit said. “Just as Google employs Face Match to scan and identify the faces of the Texans who appear before Google’s cameras, the Company employs ‘Voice Match’ to print the voice of any Texas that speaks within ‘earshot’ of Google Assistant.”

Google Photos and its “Face Grouping” feature is a big focus of the lawsuit. “The Google Photos app is a runaway success for Google… Against this pervasive backdrop of Google Photos, many Texans do not know or understand that Google powers Google Photos by recording and analyzing sensitive biometric information,” the lawsuit said. “But, even more striking is the fact that, through the Face Grouping process, Google captures and stores sensitive biometric data about Texan users and non-users alike—and Google stores that data for an unreasonable amount of time.”

Google: “We will set the record straight in court”

Google already agreed to a $100 million settlement in a class action lawsuit filed by Illinois residents. The Illinois plaintiffs claimed Google violated state law by obtaining biometrics for the Face Grouping feature without adequate prior notice and consent. Google did not admit to wrongdoing.

Google said it would fight the lawsuit and accused Paxton of incorrectly describing its products. Google provided this statement to Ars:

AG Paxton is once again mischaracterizing our products in another breathless lawsuit. For example, Google Photos helps you organize pictures of people, by grouping similar faces, so you can easily find old photos. Of course, this is only visible to you, you can easily turn off this feature if you choose and we do not use photos or videos in Google Photos for advertising purposes. The same is true for Voice Match and Face Match on Nest Hub Max, which are off-by-default features that give users the option to let Google Assistant recognize their voice or face to show their information. We will set the record straight in court.

Texas seeks injunctions and fines

Texas’ lawsuit gives a few hypothetical examples of how facial recognition in Google Photos could invade people’s privacy.

“When a Texas mother uploads photos of her daughter’s third birthday party to Google Photos, for example, Google captures the face geometry of every child’s face that can be detected in those photographs. Even more troubling, when the mother uploads video of the birthday party, Google runs facial recognition on every face detected in that video, including the faces of uninvolved bystanders in the park, restaurant, or schoolyard,” the Texas lawsuit said. “And when a grandson drives to Midland to visit his grandmother on Easter and sends a series of photos taken on his Android phone to the family thread, those photos are sent to Google Photos by default, where Google captures grandma’s face geometry. To Google, it does not matter that the three-year-olds, the bystanders, and grandma never consented to Google capturing and recording their biometric data.”

Paxton requested a jury trial and penalties of up to $25,000 per violation. Texas asked for injunctions to prevent Google from capturing, storing, or using biometric identifiers in Texas without informed consent and from using voice or facial recognition “without the informed consent of all individuals subject to Google’s facial-recognition and voice-recognition technology.”

Jon is a reporter who joined Ars Technica in 2011, and covers a wide array of IT and tech policy topics. Jon previously wrote for IDG’s Network World for 5 years, where he covered Microsoft, Google, open source, cloud computing, virtualization, data centers, and much more. Jon hails from Boston University, where he studied journalism and literature, before spending the start of his career writing about government, the environment, health, and medical technology for the Sentinel & Enterprise and the MetroWest Daily News in Massachusetts. To send Jon encrypted email, his public key is here; he can also be reached securely on Keybase.

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