Joint UK-Oz probe finds face-recognition upstart Clearview AI is rubbish at privacy

Brit watchdog considering next steps, Australia's orders deletion of scraped image trove

A joint probe conducted by the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) and the UK Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has found that facial-recognition-as-a-service company Clearview AI breached Australian privacy laws.

Clearview AI harvests photos from the public internet, uses AI to identify the people depicted, then offers law enforcement agencies a search engine to help ID suspects.

The firm proudly touts scenarios such as using a profile pic on a suspected criminal's Facebook page to match "a photo of the suspect with his real name at a local country club." Once the suspect's name was known, the firm says the investigation proceeded more quickly and easily than would otherwise have been possible.

The Info Commissioners of Australia and the UK promised to investigate Clearview's image-scraping practices in July 2020. Australia's OAIC delivered its findings today and they're damning: ClearView collected personal information unfairly and without consent, failed to inform those whose photos it identified, didn't bother checking if its assessments were accurate, and paid scant attention to Australian privacy law.

"When Australians use social media or professional networking sites, they don't expect their facial images to be collected without their consent by a commercial entity to create biometric templates for completely unrelated identification purposes," said Australian information commissioner and privacy commissioner Angelene Falk.

In her full report (PDF), Falk rejects Clearview's argument that it is exempt from Australian law because downloading images from the USA doesn't equate to doing business down under.

The document offers considerable detail about how and why the company's activities do in fact represent a breach of Australia's privacy laws and principles. Falk declared that Clearview must stop scraping images depicting Australians and destroy those it has already collected.

Clearview has since stopped offering its services in Australia and made its new business inquiry web page inaccessible from Australian IP addresses.

The commissioner also had some choice words for social networks.

"This case reinforces the need to strengthen protections through the current review of the Privacy Act, including restricting or prohibiting practices such as data scraping personal information from online platforms.

"It also raises questions about whether online platforms are doing enough to prevent and detect scraping of personal information."

Clearview, meanwhile, sails on serenely. The biz recently proudly revealed it has surpassed ten billion images in its databases, and has improved its ability to work with blurry images or photos depicting people wearing masks. ®

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