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

The Google Nest Hub Max smart home display, with a man's face reflected on the screen.
Enlarge / The Nest Hub Max is displayed during the 2019 Google I/O conference in Mountain View, California.

Getty Images | Justin Sullivan

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.”

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