Clearview AI gets £7.5m fine; is facial recognition dead?

facial recThe future of facial recognition technology has been thrown into disarray after the Information Commissioner’s Office has fined Clearview AI Inc £7.5m for using images of people in the UK that were collected from the web and social media to create a global online database.

The fine – substantially less than the £17m penalty proposed in the ICO’s notice of intent, but still the third biggest UK GDPR fine to date – comes after a joint investigation with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC), which focused on Clearview AI Inc’s use of people’s images, data scraping from the Internet and the use of biometric data for facial recognition.

The ICO has also issued an enforcement notice, ordering the company to stop obtaining and using the personal data of UK residents that is publicly available on the Internet, and to delete the data of UK residents from its systems.

The charge-sheet is long and detailed and includes:

– Failing to use the information of people in the UK in a way that is fair and transparent, given that individuals are not made aware or would not reasonably expect their personal data to be used in this way;

– Failing to have a lawful reason for collecting people’s information;

– Failing to have a process in place to stop the data being retained indefinitely;

– Failing to meet the higher data protection standards required for biometric data (classed as ‘special category data’ under the GDPR and UK GDPR);

– Asking for additional personal information, including photos, when asked by members of the public if they are on their database. This may have acted as a disincentive to individuals who wish to object to their data being collected and used.

The ICO issued a stop and desist notice to Clearview in November; the firm has collected more than 20 billion images of people’s faces and data from publicly available information on the Internet and social media platforms all over the world to create an online database. People were not informed that their images were being collected or used in this way.

The company provides a service that allows customers, including the police, to upload an image of a person to the company’s app, which is then checked for a match against all the images in the database.

The app then provides a list of images that have similar characteristics with the photo provided by the customer, with a link to the websites from where those images came from.

Given the high number of UK Internet and social media users, Clearview AI Inc’s database is likely to include a substantial amount of data from UK residents, which has been gathered without their knowledge, the ICO has ruled.

Although Clearview AI Inc no longer offers its services to UK organisations, the company has customers in other countries, so the company is still using personal data of UK residents.

Information Commissioner John Edwards said: “Clearview AI Inc has collected multiple images of people all over the world, including in the UK, from a variety of websites and social media platforms, creating a database with more than 20 billion images. The company not only enables identification of those people, but effectively monitors their behaviour and offers it as a commercial service. That is unacceptable. That is why we have acted to protect people in the UK by both fining the company and issuing an enforcement notice.

“People expect that their personal information will be respected, regardless of where in the world their data is being used. That is why global companies need international enforcement. Working with colleagues around the world helped us take this action and protect people from such intrusive activity.

“This international cooperation is essential to protect people’s privacy rights in 2022. That means working with regulators in other countries, as we did in this case with our Australian colleagues. And it means working with regulators in Europe, which is why I am meeting them in Brussels this week so we can collaborate to tackle global privacy harms.”

The use of facial recognition has sparked controversy virtually since the off, with privacy campaigners warning of its intrusive nature for years; this ruling could well kill it off for law enforcement purposes.

In May 2021, Privacy International, together with Hermes Center for Transparency & Digital Human Rights, Homo Digitalis and Max Schrems-backed organisation NOYB, filed complaints about Clearview in France, Austria, Italy, Greece and the UK.

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