Canadian commissioners find that Clearview AI engages in unlawful mass surveillance

On its website, Clearview AI bills itself as a "new research tool used by law enforcement agencies to identify perpetrators and victims of crimes". A joint investigation conducted by several Canadian commissioners' offices, however, concluded that Clearview AI engages in unlawful mass surveillance, and commissioners are now calling on the company to stop offering facial recognition technology solutions to Canadian clients, to cease collecting images of individuals in Canada, and delete any previously collected images of individuals in Canada.

 

The highly controversial US-based facial recognition startup has sought to counter the findings of the investigation by contending that its actions do not constitute mass surveillance because all the images collected are images that are already publicly available online and individual consent would not be required in such cases. Clearview also argued that individuals who posted or otherwise allowed their images to be posted online never had a reasonable expectation or concern for their privacy that would justify infringing on Clearview's freedom of expression. In addition, Clearview essentially maintains that the company's business needs outweigh individuals' privacy rights when considering the potential benefits of the technology when used for its intended purpose.

Founded in 2017, Clearview AI has in its relatively short existence built a mammoth database of over 3 billion images of people's faces scraped from various publicly available online sources including social media accounts and news articles, and from photographs and surveillance system uploads by law enforcement agencies and others. The facial recognition software developed by the company can effectively and accurately identify individuals in a matter of seconds, even if the individual's face is partially obscured.

The company has amassed a substantial global client base consisting of thousands of law enforcement agencies, local police departments, and other organizations all over the world. Clearview AI's Canadian client list once consisted of 48 Canadian law enforcement agencies (including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and other organizations. In the wake of the commissioners' joint investigation, however, Clearview AI's facial recognition technology is no longer available for Canadian clients to use.

In a statement following the conclusion of the investigation into Clearview AI's facial recognition practices, Daniel Therrien, Canada's Privacy Commissioner, stated:

What Clearview does is mass surveillance, and it is illegal. It is an affront to individuals' privacy rights and inflicts broad-based harm on all members of society, who find themselves continually in a police lineup. This is completely unacceptable.

Daniel Therrien

Commissioners rejected Clearview AI's arguments denying that the company's facial recognition practices are unlawful and contending that the company is not bound by Canada's privacy laws because it has no "substantial connection" to Canada – despite the fact that the company actively marketed its product to Canadian law enforcement agencies and actively collects images of Canadian residents. Under Canadian privacy laws, firms are required to obtain individuals' consent prior to using their personal data.

Clearview AI, however, is leaning hard into its assertion that consent is not required because the images are all sourced from publicly available online sources. This is a claim that would hold up under certain circumstances, but not in this one, according to the commissioners' report, which states that "information collected from public websites, such as social media or professional profiles, and then used for an unrelated purpose, does not fall under the 'publicly available' exception of PIPEDA".

Michael McEvoy, British Columbia's Information and Privacy Commissioner, expressed his disapproval of Clearview's facial recognition practices:

Our investigation reveals the vast amount of personal information collected without people's knowledge or consent. It is unacceptable and deeply troubling that a company would create a giant database of our biometric data and sell it for profit without recognizing its invasive nature.

Michael McEvoy

The investigation concluded that Clearview's practices are in direct violation of Canadian privacy laws due primarily to the highly sensitive nature of the biometric data collected and sold by the company without the data subjects' knowledge or consent.

Though Clearview agreed to discontinue its services to Canadian clients, the company did not signal any indication that it would be willing to cease collecting images of people in Canada, nor that it would be willing to delete any previously collected images.

Canadian authorities are prepared to pursue legal action against the company if it continues to balk at complying with Canadian privacy laws.

Following the investigation's findings, several commissioners advocated for stronger privacy laws that do more to protect the privacy of Canadian residents properly. Commissioner Therrien said that he hopes "Parliamentarians will send a clear message that where, as here, there is a conflict between commercial objectives and privacy protection, Canadians' privacy rights should prevail".


Feature image credit: Ascannio / Shutterstock.com

Written by: Attila Tomaschek

Attila is a Hungarian-American currently living in Budapest. Being in the VPN game for over 5 years, along with his acute understanding of the digital privacy space enables him to share his expertise with ProPrivacy readers. Attila has been featured as a privacy expert in press outlets such as Security Week, Silicon Angle, Fox News, Reader’s Digest, The Washington Examiner, Techopedia, Disruptor Daily, DZone, and more. He has also contributed bylines for several online publications like SC Magazine UK, Legal Reader, ITProPortal, BetaNews, and Verdict.

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