Clearview AI image-scraping face recognition service hit with €20m fine in France

The Clearview AI saga continues!

If you haven’t heard of this company before, here’s a very clear and concise recap from the French privacy regulator, CNIL (Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés), which has very handily been publishing its findings and rulings in this long-running story in both French and English:

Clearview AI collects photographs from many websites, including social media. It collects all the photographs that are directly accessible on these networks (i.e. that can be viewed without logging in to an account). Images are also extracted from videos available online on all platforms.

Thus, the company has collected over 20 billion images worldwide.

Thanks to this collection, the company markets access to its image database in the form of a search engine in which a person can be searched using a photograph. The company offers this service to law enforcement authorities in order to identify perpetrators or victims of crime.

Facial recognition technology is used to query the search engine and find a person based on their photograph. In order to do so, the company builds a “biometric template”, i.e. a digital representation of a person’s physical characteristics (the face in this case). These biometric data are particularly sensitive, especially because they are linked to our physical identity (what we are) and enable us to identify ourselves in a unique way.

The vast majority of people whose images are collected into the search engine are unaware of this feature.

Clearview AI has variously attracted the ire of companies, privacy organisations and regulators over the last few years, including getting hit with:

  • Complaints and class action lawsuits filed in Illinois, Vermont, New York and California.
  • A legal challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
  • Cease-and-desist orders from Facebook, Google and YouTube, who deemed that Clearview’s scraping activities violated their terms and conditions.
  • Crackdown action and fines in Australia and the UK.
  • A ruling finding its operation unlawful in 2021, by the abovementioned French regulator.

No legitimate interest

In December 2021, CNIL stated, quite bluntly, that:

[T]his company does not obtain the consent of the persons concerned to collect and use their photographs to supply its software.

Clearview AI does not have a legitimate interest in collecting and using this data either, particularly given the intrusive and massive nature of the process, which makes it possible to retrieve the images present on the Internet of several tens of millions of Internet users in France. These people, whose photographs or videos are accessible on various websites, including social media, do not reasonably expect their images to be processed by the company to supply a facial recognition system that could be used by States for law enforcement purposes.

The seriousness of this breach led the CNIL chair to order Clearview AI to cease, for lack of a legal basis, the collection and use of data from people on French territory, in the context of the operation of the facial recognition software it markets.

Furthermore, CNIL formed the opinion that Clearview AI didn’t seem to care much about complying with European rules on collecting and handling personal data:

The complaints received by the CNIL revealed the difficulties encountered by complainants in exercising their rights with Clearview AI.

On the one hand, the company does not facilitate the exercise of the data subject’s right of access:

  • by limiting the exercise of this right to data collected during the twelve months preceding the request;
  • by restricting the exercise of this right to twice a year, without justification;
  • by only responding to certain requests after an excessive number of requests from the same person.

On the other hand, the company does not respond effectively to requests for access and erasure. It provides partial responses or does not respond at all to requests.

CNIL even published an infographic that sums up its decision, and its decision making process:

The Australian and UK Information Commissioners came to similar conclusions, with similar outcomes for Clearview AI: your data scraping is illegal in our jurisdictions; you must stop doing it here.

However, as we said back in May 2022, when the UK reported that it would be fining Clearview AI about £7,500,000 (down from the £17m fine first proposed) and ordering the company not to collect data on UK residents any more, “how this will be policed, let alone enforced, is unclear.”

We may be about to find how the company will be policed in the future, with CNIL losing patience with Clearview AI for not comlying with its ruling to stop collecting the biometric data of French people…

…and announcing a fine of €20,000,000:

Following a formal notice which remained unaddressed, the CNIL imposed a penalty of 20 million Euros and ordered CLEARVIEW AI to stop collecting and using data on individuals in France without a legal basis and to delete the data already collected.

What next?

As we’ve written before, Clearview AI seems not only to be happy to ignore regulatory rulings issued against it, but also to expect people to feel sorry for it at the same time, and indeed to be on its side for providing what it thinks is a vital service to society.

In the UK ruling, where the regulator took a similar line to CNIL in France, the company was told that its behaviour was unlawful, unwanted and must stop forthwith.

But reports at the time suggested that far from showing any humility, Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That reacted with an opening sentiment that would not be out of place in a tragic lovesong:

It breaks my heart that Clearview AI has been unable to assist when receiving urgent requests from UK law enforcement agencies seeking to use this technology to investigate cases of severe sexual abuse of children in the UK.

As we suggested back in May 2022, the company may find its plentiful opponents replying with song lyrics of their own:

Cry me a river. (Don’t act like you don’t know it.)

What do you think?

Is Clearview AI really providing a beneficial and socially acceptable service to law enforcement?

Or is it casually trampling on our privacy and our presumption of innocence by collecting biometric data unlawfully, and commercialising it for investigative tracking purposes without consent (and, apparently, without limit)?

Let us know in the comments below… you may remain anonymous.