The UK has become the fourth country to require Clearview AI, the controversial facial recognition company, to completely delete its citizens’ data… but there is reason to be skeptical about the effectiveness of this approach.
According On the edge, The UK has just become the fourth country to require Clearview AI, the controversial facial recognition company, to delete all its data relating to British citizens. Downing Street thus follows in the footsteps of the French, Italian and Australian governments, which have already taken similar measures.
As a reminder, Clearview claims to have in its possession over 20 billion images collected from the four corners of the web. In particular, the company has unreservedly turned to public platforms such as Facebook or Instagram to feed its database, without any explicit agreement from the parties involved.
The goal: to resell them through a biometric system that allows for large-scale facial recognition. A practice that has caused a lot of backlash, both from privacy organizations and lawmakers. In January 2020, the New York Times produced a chilling and eloquent portrait of the company. Your Headline: “The company that could complete privacy as we know it“, that’s all. A bold choice of words that says a lot about the ethical unease it generates and which has already earned him several lawsuits.
In fact, many of them felt that the company had no legitimate reason to undertake such a harvest without any transparency approach. The United States was one of the first to take a stand through the American Civil Liberties Union. The institution ended up causing Clearview AI to stop selling its data to American companies… with the exception of federal authorities, under the guise of national security. We definitely didn’t lose North on the side of the FBI and the NSA.
Europe is advancing against this wild collection
The British were also among the company’s customers for a while. According On the edge, several institutions, such as the police, the National Crime Agency or even the Ministry of Defense, used its database. According to the Information Commissioner’s Office, this collaboration has now ceased; but all data collected on overseas residents would be still available to customers in other countries.
An intolerable situation for the authorities. “This company not only allows people to be identified” explains John Edwards, the government’s Information Commissioner. “It monitors your behavior and delivers the result as a commercial service. This is unacceptable”, he hammers.
The country therefore decided to impose a fine on the company and asked it to completely clean its database of any elements related to Queen Elizabeth’s affairs. The height of irony: according to wired, Even Facebook would have asked Clearview to stop looting their site…
France had already taken a similar resolution in December 2021. The CNIL had then formally asked Clearview AI to cease its activity in France. “People whose photos or videos are accessible on many websites and networks cannot reasonably expect the images processed by the company to be used to power facial recognition systems.”, estimated the institution.
A sword in the water?
It remains to be seen what the scope of this new order will be. Because, as such, Clearview AI remains a uniquely American company. It did not establish the smallest base in Europe. The company’s personnel defend themselves by saying that, technically, it is in no way subject to the legislation of the countries in question.
As it stands, Clearview AI is unlikely to give in to injunctions from European governments. This data represents a considerable financial gain and the authorities do not seem to have the slightest influence or means of pressure. Especially since Cleaview AI continues to work with US federal authorities… who are certainly delighted to have access to a database of European audiences.
So there’s a good chance this is another stab in the water; for now, nothing prevents Clearview AI from playing deaf. A situation that once again revives the famous ethical debate around these databases, with many questions about individual freedoms and digital sovereignty in the background.
Therefore, it will be interesting to follow the case. Will the various lawmakers find an attack surface to force Clearview AI to comply with European regulations? Whether they succeed or not, it seems increasingly urgent to establish a clear, uniform and global legal framework to anticipate some of the terrifying scenarios that seem to become clearer with each passing day.