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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has filed a lawsuit against Google, claiming the internet giant is violating state law by amassing facial and voice recognition data on Texans without their knowledge or consent.
The lawsuit claims Google apps and devices indefinitely store data on facial geometry and voiceprints from anyone they capture, whether they are Google users or not. The company does not expressly inform people or receive their consent, violating the Texas Capture or Use of Biometric Information Act, the lawsuit claims.
A Google spokesperson called the filing “another breathless lawsuit” from Paxton’s office and said it misrepresents what the company’s products do.
The lawsuit was filed in a Midland state district court, and a private law firm is leading the case on behalf of Paxton’s office. The suit seeks to shut down Google’s practices and asks for a $25,000 civil penalty for each violation, a sum that could be enormous in a state the size of Texas.
According to the suit, Google identifies and stores the facial geometry of anyone whose face appears in a photo uploaded to Google Photos, including people who may be in the background or may not know the photo will be uploaded to the app. This facial geometry data is used to automatically sort pictures based on who appears in them. The same occurs for anyone who approaches a Google Nest Hub Max, a smart home device that uses facial recognition to suggest features based on who is using it. This includes “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 reads.
Additionally, any app or device that uses the voice-controlled Google Assistant stores the voiceprints of anyone speaking when the assistant is activated to build user profiles. This includes the user who awoke the device as well as anyone else speaking in the background while it listens for a command.
“AG Paxton is once again mischaracterizing our products in another breathless lawsuit,” Google spokesperson José Castañeda said in a statement. “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.”
Each time Google collects and identifies someone’s facial geometry or voiceprint, its biometric recognition technology improves, according to the lawsuit. Because Google charges users to store more than 15 gigabytes of photos in the Google Photos app, Paxton argues in the lawsuit that Google is using Texans’ stored biometric data to further its commercial goals.
The lawsuit’s language emphasizes damages against children and elderly people who may appear in images uploaded to Google Photos or who might be speaking while someone activates Google Assistant, unknowingly and unwittingly providing biometric data to be stored by Google indefinitely.
Paxton’s lawsuit isn’t the first of its kind. This year, Illinois brought lawsuits against Google and Snapchat for similar violations of its biometric privacy law. Both companies settled the cases out of court; Snapchat agreed to pay out $35 million to Illinois residents while Google agreed to pay $100 million. Google also agreed to pay $85 million earlier this month to settle a lawsuit brought by the state of Arizona alleging the company violated Arizona law by tracking Android users’ locations.
Disclosure: Google has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.