Adding to the increasing scrutiny of controversial facial recognition company Clearview AI, the governments of Australia and the UK are now opening a joint investigation into the company. The Information Commissioner’s of the two countries, Thursday said, will investigate the “personal information handling practices” of Clearview AI, focussing on its use of ‘scraped’ data and biometrics of individuals. Both the privacy commissioners will also engage with other data protection authorities who have raised similar concerns, where relevant and appropriate.
Increasing scrutiny of Clearview AI: This comes only days after Clearview AI agreed to cease offering its facial recognition services in Canada, following an investigation by Canadian privacy protection authorities. This includes an indefinite suspension of Clearview AI’s contract with the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), which was its last remaining client in the country. In May, rights group, the American Civil Liberties Union had sued Clearview AI for allegedly violating Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, and for presenting an “an unprecedented threat to our security and safety”.
Clearview AI’s face recognition service is built on a database largely constructed by scouring through the millions of images available on the internet. Once you feed a person’s image into it, it pulls out all matching faces from its database. The software pulls facial data from all publicly available images online, including from Twitter, Facebook, Google, Instagram, YouTube, news articles, and more. The result is a database of unprecedented scale — over 3 billion images to be exact — to readily identify any person walking on the street, with just a single image. After a New York Times had brought details about the secretive company to the fore, platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Google and YouTube had sent cease and desist letters to Clearview AI, asking it to stop scraping content from their respective platforms.
Even though the company had constantly maintained that its service is only used by law enforcement agencies and “select security professionals”, a BuzzFeed News report showed that its client list included both government and private entities. Even among its government client, the company was found selling its technology to law enforcement agencies, and police forces in 27 countries including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and India.
Facial recognition tech under fire: Broadly, facial recognition technology has seen massive pushback, especially in the US, following the murder of George Floyd. The city of Boston was the latest to ban the technology, which was followed by the introduction of a Bill in the US Congress, which proposes to prohibit federal agencies and officials from acquiring, possessing, accessing, and even using “any biometric surveillance system”, such as facial recognition technology.
The pushback has also forced big, for-profit, companies to take a stand on the technology, which has had a demonstrated history of being discriminatory towards people of colour and other underrepresented communities. Microsoft has said that it will not sell the tech to police in the US until a federal law, while Amazon has committed to doing the same, albeit just for a year. IBM has said that it will altogether stop offering “general-purpose facial recognition and analysis software”.