The future of facial recognition technology is in the balance following a new data protection clampdown against one of the industry’s leading firms, Clearview AI, with Facebook also deciding to shutter its system and delete more than a billion users’ facial data templates following a US lawsuit.
The use of facial recognition has sparked controversy virtually since the off, with privacy campaigners warning of its intrusive nature for years.
The UK Information Commissioner’s Office first embarked on a full-scale investigation into the use of the software in public places after complaints over the 67-acre King’s Cross Central site – home to King’s Cross and St Pancras stations, as well as restaurants, shops and cafés.
Last year, the ICO joined forces with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) for an investigation into the personal information handling practices of Clearview AI , focusing on the company’s use of “scraped” data and biometrics of individuals.
Clearview claims to have scraped 10 billion images of people from social media sites in order to identify them in other photos, and sells its technology to law enforcement agencies. It was trialled by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) between October 2019 and March 2020.
This probe has now concluded, with the OAIC ordering Clearview AI to destroy all images and facial templates belonging to individuals living in Australia.
The UK ICO said it is considering its next steps and any formal regulatory action that may be appropriate under the UK data protection laws.
Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said: “Our digital world is international and so our regulatory work must be international too, particularly where we are looking to anticipate, interpret and influence developments in tech for the global good.
“That doesn’t mean sharing the same laws or approaches, but on finding ways for our different approaches to work side by side and to co-ordinate and share the regulatory challenge where technologies impact our citizens across international borders. This helps minimise the burden on data protection authorities and those they regulate. That is what we were able to achieve in this case, and the result is an investigation that will protect consumers in both the UK and Australia.”
In May, Clearview AI was hit with legal complaints about its practices at five separate European data protection authorities. Privacy International, together with Hermes Center for Transparency & Digital Human Rights, Homo Digitalis and Max Schrems-backed organisation NOYB, has filed complaints in France, Austria, Italy, Greece and the UK.
Meanwhile, Facebook says it is moving away from using the software after recently being forced to pay $650m to resolve a biometric privacy lawsuit in the US.
Until now, users of the social media app could choose to opt in to the feature which would scan their face in pictures and notify them if someone else on the platform had posted a picture of them.
In a blog post, Facebook vice president of artificial intelligence Jerome Pesenti said: “Amid this ongoing uncertainty, we believe that limiting the use of facial recognition to a narrow set of use cases is appropriate.”
Rival tech firms such as Amazon and Microsoft have also suspended facial recognition product sales to police due to the controversy surrounding the tech.
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