The UK and Australian government are investigating a facial recognition firm that grabbed billions of people’s pictures from across the internet for data privacy violations. In an announcement on Thursday, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner and the UK’s Information Commissioner Office said they were both looking into Clearview AI, specifically on how the company scrapes data and handles it.
The investigation will look to see if Clearview AI violated the Australian Privacy Act and the UK Data Protection Act, the agencies said on Thursday.
“The investigation highlights the importance of enforcement cooperation in protecting the personal information of Australian and UK citizens in a globalised data environment,” the offices said in their joint statement.
Clearview AI’s CEO Hoan Ton-That said that the company would be cooperating with the investigation, and defended the company’s practices.
“Clearview AI searches publicly available photos from the internet in accordance with applicable laws. It is used to help identify criminal suspects,” Ton-That said. “It’s powerful technology is currently unavailable in UK and Australia. Individuals in these countries can opt-out.”
While stating that the technology is now unavailable in the UK and Australia, BuzzFeed News found in February that Australian police made hundreds of searches using Clearview AI, as did police in the UK.
To opt out of Clearview AI’s database, you also have to submit a photo of yourself for the company to permanently keep. You can only opt out if you live in a state or country that requires Clearview AI to do so.
The facial recognition company made its way into the spotlight after a New York Times story in January. The company amassed more than 3 billion photos of people by scraping public images from websites like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube, and claimed it had a First Amendment right to do so.
The company tells customers it can match those photos with people with pinpoint accuracy, a pitch that has landed them clients from police departments to retail stores, according to BuzzFeed News. Privacy advocates have warned that this technology strips away people’s privacy in an alarming fashion.
Tech giants like Facebook, Google and Microsoft have sent cease-and-desist orders to Clearview AI for its scraping, but the facial recognition company said it intends on challenging those requests.
The joint investigation comes three days after the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada announced that Clearview AI would be leaving Canada in response to a separate investigation from the agency.
Canada’s privacy commissioner office said it is still investigating how its state police used the facial recognition tools, and how Clearview AI would delete data belonging to Canadians.
“The investigation of Clearview by privacy protection authorities for Canada, Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec remains open. The authorities still plan to issue findings in this matter given the importance of the issue for the privacy rights of Canadians,” the office said in a statement on July 6.
Facial recognition has been going through a social upheaval as civil rights advocates and lawmakers argue that the technology is racially biased and also erodes privacy rights. Companies like Microsoft, IBM and Amazon have paused their facial recognition offers to law enforcement, citing human rights and ethical concerns, while lawmakers proposed a national indefinite ban on the technology for police.
Despite the public outcry against the technology, Clearview AI has doubled down, arguing that its facial recognition can help police, even offering its surveillance technology to help track the coronavirus pandemic.
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