A US company that gathered photos of people from Facebook and other social media sites for use in facial recognition by its clients is facing a £17m fine after the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) found it had committed “serious breaches” of data protection law.
Clearview AI, which describes itself as the “world’s largest facial network”, allows its customers to compare facial data against a database of more than 10bn images harvested from the internet.
The database is “likely to include the data of a substantial number of people from the UK and may have been gathered without people’s knowledge from publicly available information online, including social media platforms”, the ICO said.
Clearview’s technology had been offered on a “free trial basis” to UK law enforcement agencies, the data regulator added. The company said the ICO’s findings were “factually and legally incorrect”, that it was considering an appeal, and that it had only provided publicly available information to law enforcement agencies.
It said Clearview had broken data protection law by failing to process the information of people in the UK in a way they were likely to expect or that was fair. The company did not have processes in place to stop the data being retained indefinitely, nor did it have a lawful reason to collect the information.
Clearview also allegedly failed to meet the higher data protection standards required for biometric data under general data protection regulations and did not inform people in the UK of what was happening to their data.
The ICO said people who asked for their data to be deleted may have been put off from going through with the request because Clearview asked for additional personal information, including photographs.
Clearview’s free trial for law enforcement bodies has been discontinued and the company’s services are no longer being offered in the UK.
Scrutiny of the company’s activity in the UK follows revelations in 2020 about its work for US law enforcement.
The ICO said it had ordered Clearview to stop further processing of the personal data of people in the UK and to delete it. It also warned the company of its “provisional” intention to impose a £17m fine for the breaches.
Clearview can now make representations to the ICO, which conducted the investigation alongside its Australian counterpart, the OAIC, before a final decision in mid-2022.
The company’s chief executive, Hoan Ton-That, said: “I grew up in Australia and have long viewed the UK as an important, majestic place – one about which I have the deepest respect.
“I am deeply disappointed that the UK information commissioner has misinterpreted my technology and intentions. I created the consequential facial recognition technology known the world over.
“My company and I have acted in the best interests of the UK and [its] people by assisting law enforcement in solving heinous crimes against children, seniors, and other victims of unscrupulous acts.
“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.
“I would welcome the opportunity to engage in conversation with leaders and lawmakers so the true value of this technology which has proven so essential to law enforcement can continue to make communities safe.”
The UK’s information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, said: “I have significant concerns that personal data was processed in a way that nobody in the UK will have expected. It is therefore only right that the ICO alerts people to the scale of this potential breach and the proposed action we’re taking.”
Denham added: “Clearview AI Inc’s services are no longer being offered in the UK. However, the evidence we’ve gathered and analysed suggests Clearview AI Inc were and may be continuing to process significant volumes of UK people’s information without their knowledge. We therefore want to assure the UK public that we are considering these alleged breaches and taking them very seriously.”
The potential fine for Clearview follows mounting concern in the UK about the growing use of biometric technology, including the use of facial recognition systems to take payment in school canteens.
In a statement, Clearview said: “The UK ICO commissioner’s assertions are factually and legally incorrect. The company is considering an appeal and further action.
“Clearview AI provides publicly available information from the internet to law enforcement agencies. To be clear, Clearview AI does not do business in the UK, and does not have any UK customers at this time.”
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