Google’s Art Selfies Are Fun but Stir Up Potential Privacy Concerns

For now, keep enjoying the app

Google's Arts & Culture app has gone viral with everyone—including celebrities. Google
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Leave it to Google to come up with the first viral app of 2018.

The search giant’s Arts & Culture app, which pairs a selfie you take with one of the thousands of artworks available on Google’s database, has already seen more than 30 million downloads, according to the company.

While most of the internet is enjoying taking selfies and seeing what artwork they’re matched with, other users raised concerns over the app’s alleged facial recognition technology and what exactly Google’s doing with that data. (We’ve reached out to Google for comment and will update if we hear back.) According to a disclaimer on the app and in a blog post, Google doesn’t permanently store your selfie; the company “only keeps it for the time it takes to search for matches.”

Travis Jarae, CEO of One World Identity (OWI), an identity research company, doesn’t think people need to fret about any privacy concerns.We have no reason to doubt Google’s claim that selfies are only stored in the cloud long enough to generate portrait matches, and are not saved on any servers,” said Jarae.

Instead, Jarae cautioned people to think about what data they’re giving to apps and advised users to do their own research on sites like the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

Michelle De Mooy, director, privacy and data project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, is slightly more wary about what Google will do with the data.

It’s important to consider that the only thing governing their practices at the moment (except in Texas and Illinois) is their privacy policy, which might change,” said De Mooy. 

For now, Google stipulates that this is just one way to get people to connect to more art and culture. Jarae also believes the company is using the selfies to “train and improve the quality of their facial recognition AI technology.”

This particular aspect of the app is potentially why it isn’t available in Illinois and Texas, due to laws that heavily restrict how companies can use biometric technology.

That’s not the only trouble the app has given Google; many users have also pointed out that the artwork database is largely exclusionary and leaves out people of color. So, instead of matching to a potential piece of art that actually looks more like them, people are matched to European or U.S.-centric artworks. 

“Like many digital products, the app is imbued with the values of its creators, which in the case of Silicon Valley-based companies, means it may not be inclusive of different communities,” De Mooy said. “For example, the app may not be as likely to recognize or match non-white and non-male faces.”

De Mooy points to the lack of diversity in tech causing the algorithmic biases.

“The result is that apps reflect historical bias that might limit their appeal and utility to different communities,” De Mooy said. 

Unlike other controversies, Google appears to be aware of the issue and stated in the blog post, “We’ll continue to partner with more museums to bring diverse cultures from every part of the world online (any museum can join!), so you can explore their stories and find even more portraits.”

So far, it doesn’t look like the app has necessarily caused any spikes in museum visitors either. According to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the staff hasn’t “noticed a change in our attendance patterns since the launch of the app.” (We’ve reached out to a number of other museums and will update if we hear back.)

Web traffic however is a different story. The de Young Museum in San Francisco, California stated its seen an “875 percent increase in visitors” to its web profile on Google Arts and Culture.

For now, people can keep on taking those selfies and decide for themselves whether it’s worth the potential privacy risk (and if it’ll inspire a visit to their local museum).

@itstheannmarie Ann-Marie Alcántara is a tech reporter for Adweek, focusing on direct-to-consumer brands and ecommerce.