The Texas attorney general filed a privacy lawsuit against Google on Thursday, accusing the internet company of collecting Texans’ facial and voice recognition information without their explicit consent.
Ken Paxton, the state’s attorney general, said Google had violated a state consumer protection law that requires companies to inform citizens and get their consent before capturing their biometric identifiers, including fingerprints, voiceprints and a “record of hand or face geometry.”
Violators of the law face fines of up to $25,000 per violation. Mr. Paxton said Google had millions of users in Texas who were potentially affected.
“Google’s indiscriminate collection of the personal information of Texans, including very sensitive information like biometric identifiers, will not be tolerated,” Mr. Paxton said in a statement. “I will continue to fight Big Tech to ensure the privacy and security of all Texans.”
José Castañeda, a Google spokesman, said in a statement that Mr. Paxton “is once again mischaracterizing our products in another breathless lawsuit.” He added, “We will set the record straight in court.”
The complaint targets the Google Photos app, which allows people to search for photos they took of a particular person; Google’s Nest camera, which can send alerts when it recognizes (or fails to recognize) a visitor at the door; and the voice-activated Google Assistant, which can learn to recognize up to six users’ voices to give them personalized answers to their questions. Mr. Paxton said the products violated the rights of both users and nonusers, whose faces and voices were scanned or processed without their understanding or consent.
Mr. Paxton, who became attorney general in 2015, has repeatedly taken on Big Tech companies in recent years. In 2020, his office, joined by nine other states, filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google. After the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, Mr. Paxton sent investigative demands to Twitter, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, asking for details of their content moderation practices. This year, he opened an investigation into Twitter over fake accounts.
Texas introduced its biometric privacy law in 2009, with Illinois and Washington passing similar laws around the same time. While Illinois’s version of the law allows individuals to sue companies directly, Texas must sue companies on consumers’ behalf. Until this year, Texas had not enforced its law.
In contrast, hundreds of class-action lawsuits have been filed over biometric privacy in Illinois, including one against Google in 2016, which recently ended in a $100 million settlement.
“The single biggest difference is that Illinois has a private right of action, which Texas doesn’t,” said Omer Tene, a privacy lawyer at the firm Goodwin. “When it comes to attorney general priorities, this hasn’t figured high. Maybe it’s going to become more central now.”
Mr. Paxton filed the first lawsuit invoking the Texas biometric privacy law in February, suing Meta, which owns Facebook, for facial recognition that it performed on photos to make it easier for users to tag people they knew. The timing seemed odd since Meta had discontinued its decade-long use of facial recognition for photo-tagging on Facebook, and announced plans to delete the associated face scan data, months before it was sued.
At the time, Mr. Paxton was in the final months of a competitive race against George P. Bush for the Republican nomination for attorney general, an elected office in Texas. Mr. Paxton won the primary.
The lawsuit against Meta is continuing. It has already had one effect for Texan consumers: They must now give Meta-owned Instagram permission to analyze their facial features to use certain face filters that can transform their appearance into, for example, a puppy or a googly-eyed monster.
The legal complaint against Google was also filed in the run-up to an election. Mr. Paxton will face a Democratic challenger, Rochelle Garza, in the general election next month.
“Google has now spent years unlawfully capturing the faces and voices of both nonconsenting users and nonusers 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,” read the complaint against Google, which was filed in district court in Midland County.