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The Privacy Advisor | ACLU files class-action vs. Clearview AI under biometric privacy law Related reading: Clearview AI ends partnerships with private companies

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Yesterday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois filed a lawsuit against Delaware-based Clearview AI for violating, in an "extraordinary and unprecedented" way, Illinois residents' privacy rights. 

The complaint calls for Clearview to stop capturing and storing individuals' biometric identifiers: namely, faceprints. "Using face recognition technology, Clearview has captured more than three billion faceprints from images available online, all without the knowledge — much less the consent — of those pictured. Clearview claims that, through this enormous database, it can instantaneously identify the subject of a photograph with unprecedented accuracy, enabling covert and remote surveillance of Americans on a massive scale," the complaint alleges. 

On its website, Clearview says its mission is to help law enforcement "track down hundreds of at-large criminals, including pedophiles, terrorists and sex traffickers. ... Using Clearview AI, law enforcement is able to catch the most dangerous criminals, solve the toughest cold cases and make communities safer, especially the most vulnerable among us." 

But the ACLU disagrees. 

In announcing the suit, ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Nathan Freed Wessler said companies like Clearview "will end privacy as we know it, and must be stopped. This menacing technology gives governments, companies, and individuals the unprecedented power to spy on us wherever we go — tracking our faces at protests, AA meetings, political rallies, places of worship, and more." 

Importantly, the suit has been filed in one of the few states with a biometric privacy law on the books. Illinois' Biometric Information Privacy Act was passed in 2008 and forbids unlawful collection and storage of biometric information. To capture such information, subjects must be notified and give their consent in writing. It also allows for a private right of action if the law is violated for statutory damages in the amount of $1,000 per violation of $5,000 per violation if it's proven the infraction was reckless. 

It was only earlier this year that Clearview's practices came into focus, when Kashmir Hill reported for The New York Times that the company's technology was being employed by more than 600 law enforcement agencies and that Clearview had scraped its database of 3 billion images from sites like Facebook, YouTube and Venmo.

The ACLU's suit yesterday isn't the first Clearview has faced; an Illinois resident unaffiliated with the most recent ACLU complaint sued the company in January for BIPA violations and called for Clearview to destroy its faceprint database. In February, a class-action was filed in Virginia, and  Vermont's attorney general filed suit in March. Facing increased scrutiny, the company said this month that it would end any contracts with private companies and instead focus on aiding law enforcement strictly, as Buzzfeed reported. 

Besides legal action, lawmakers and regulators in both the U.S. and abroad have launched probes. 

Jay Edelson of Chicago-based Edelson PC is serving as lead counsel in the ACLU case. His firm previously settled a class-action lawsuit with Facebook under BIPA after the company agreed to pay $550 million over its use of facial recognition technology. 

Of the ACLU suit, Edelson said, “Clearview’s actions represent one of the largest threats to personal privacy by a private company our country has faced. If a well-funded, politically connected company can simply amass information to track all of us, we are living in a different America." 

Notably, in March, the company announced it is developing a surveillance camera, though its unclear if those plans are still in the works and when the product may came to market if so.

Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

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