Clearview’s controversial practice of collecting and selling billions of faceprints was dealt a heavy blow by a Canadian commissioner.
Clearview, founded in 2017 by Australian entrepreneur Hoan Ton-Thatand, is in the business of collecting what it calls “faceprints”, which are unique biometric identifiers similar to someone’s fingerprint or DNA profile, from photos people post online.
Canadian authorities have found that the collection of facial-recognition data by Clearview is illegal because it violates federal and provincial privacy laws, representing a win for individuals’ privacy and potentially setting a precedent for other legal challenges to the controversial technology.
A joint investigation of privacy authorities led by the Office of the Commissioner of Canada came to this conclusion, claiming that the New York-based company’s scraping of billions of images of people from across the internet represented mass surveillance and infringes on the privacy rights of Canadians.
Moreover, the investigation found that Clearview had collected highly sensitive biometric information without people’s knowledge or consent and then used and disclosed this personal information for inappropriate purposes that would not be appropriate even if people had consented.
Since 2019, the company has faced legal challenges to its technology and business practices, part of a larger question of whether facial-recognition technologies being developed by myriad companies—including companies like Microsoft and IBM—should be legal at all.
To date, Clearview has amassed a database of billions of these faceprints, which it sells to its clients. It also provides access to a smartphone app that allows clients to upload a photo of an unknown person and instantly receive a set of matching photos.
One of the biggest arguments in his company’s defence that Ton-Thatand has made in published reports is that there is significant benefit in using its technology in law enforcement and national security, which outweighs the privacy concerns of individuals. Furthermore, Clearview is not to blame if law enforcement misuses its technology.
The decision in Canada will likely help other legal challenges not only to Clearview’s technology but facial recognition in general. Last May, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Clearview for privacy violations in Illinois, a case that is ongoing. Lawmakers in the United States even have proposed a nationwide ban on facial recognition.
The technology also raises questions of racial bias and the potential for false accusations against innocent people. In December two black men filed a case against police in Michigan, saying they were falsely identified by facial-recognition technology—specifically, DataWorks Plus, which is used by Michigan State Police.