Facial recognition scanning concept

Clearview AI will stop selling its facial recognition technology to private firms

Image credit: Monkey Business Images/Dreamstime

In a landmark victory for privacy advocates, the controversial facial-recognition company with a database of more than 10 billion images has signed a settlement agreeing to stop providing access to its technology to businesses and other private actors.

Clearview AI - the facial recognition company whose massive database has been used recently to identify Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine, as well as rioters who stormed the US Capitol building in 2021 - will no longer sell its technology to private companies in the US as part of an historic data privacy settlement.

The company first came under the spotlight in 2020 when its database containing billions of faces was breached. This prompted privacy advocates to condemn Clearview AI’s business model, based on scraping billions of publicly available images from social media to train its facial-recognition software, which was later sold to law enforcement agencies to help identify people from closed-circuit television footage. 

The settlement - which must still be approved by a county judge in Chicago - marks the most significant court action yet against Clearview AI. It also ends a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups in 2020 over alleged violations of Illinois' 2008 Biometruc Information Privacy Act (BIPA), which bans companies from sharing people’s face photos, fingerprints and other biometric information without their consent.

As a result of the agreement, Clearview AI will stop selling access to its face database to private businesses or individuals, not only in the state of Illinois but across the US.

“This is a real vindication of the ability of states to protect people from the worst forms of abusive corporate surveillance,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, deputy director of ACLU’s 'Speech, Privacy and Technology Project'.

The settlement also states that, for the next five years, Clearview AI won’t sell its facial-recognition technology to any entity in the state of Illinois, including the police. Prior to the lawsuit, buyers of the technology included the Chicago Police Department and the office of the Illinois Secretary of State.

However, the New York-based company will continue offering its services to federal agencies, such as US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and to other law enforcement agencies and government contractors outside of Illinois.

The ACLU sued Clearview on behalf of groups representing immigrants, sex workers and survivors of domestic violence, arguing that they faced extraordinary harm from the police identification tool.

Initially, Clearview had argued in court that the Illinois law restricted the company’s ability to collect and analyse public information, thus violating its First Amendment-protected freedom of speech.

After news of the settlement was made public, Floyd Abrams, Clearview's lawyer, welcomed the end of the litigation, stating that it would not require the company to change its current business model. However, he acknowledged that the lawsuit had changed the way the company does business, saying it had agreed not to work with Illinois agencies “to avoid a protracted, costly and distracting legal dispute.”

Clearview AI founder Hoan Ton-That has maintained that the tool is invaluable in fighting crime and that it is only sold to law enforcement agencies. The company claims it works with more than 3,000 such agencies in the US and is reportedly on track to have more than 100 billion scans in its database within a year.

The Illinois lawsuit marks a historic win by data privacy advocates, who hope for similar results from the investigations in which the company is currently involved in California, New York, Vermont and Virginia. Other countries, including the UK and Canada, have also opened investigations into the company's use of private information.

“Clearview can no longer treat people’s unique biometric identifiers as an unrestricted source of profit,” Wessler adds. “Other companies would be wise to take note and other states should follow Illinois’ lead in enacting strong biometric privacy laws.”

Since it came into effect in 2008, the Illinois law has led to several major tech-privacy settlements, including a $650m (£526m) settlement from Facebook related to its use of facial-recognition technologies in its user-tagging feature. 

Moreover, rising privacy concerns have resulted in many tech companies coming under fire for the unethical use of similar technologies. In 2021, Amazon suppressed the use of its 'Rekognition' facial-recognition software, while IBM and Microsoft have also scaled back their own developments in this field.

Currently, there are no federal laws restricting how facial recognition can be developed or deployed in the US. 

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