Clearview AI - The Privacy-Breaching App That Gives Us the Creeps

If you are the sort of person who just cannot help but click on everything that gives you the creeps, like I am, you are likely to have already read a handful of articles on Clearview AI.

If you are, however, more fortunate and have read enough of those already, here is a quick recap of the story. According to media reports, technology start-up Clearview AI has scraped more than three billion facial images from the Internet, including social media sites like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. They did this without obtaining the permission of either the users or the companies. They have also developed a face recognition app that communicates with their database of looted photos. Apparently, if you take a picture of a person (a partial face shot may well be enough) and you check it against Clearview’s database, you get to see public photos of that person, along with links to where those photos appeared. Even when those photos are 20 or 30 years old.

The New York Times even mentions the technical possibility of pairing Clearview’s program with augmented-reality glasses that would make it possible for Clearview’s subscribers to identify and research the back-story of every person they see in real time. Protesters, attractive passersby, you name it.

According to the start-up, in 2019 more than 600 US law enforcement agencies used Clearview AI, and they have licensed it to a handful of private firms too. In the near future they plan to keep aggressively targeting US police departments, and they also plan to expand to at least 22 more countries.

Got the creeps already? No? You think that, as an EU citizen, you are protected from such privacy-breaching lowlifes because you do not leave the good old continent? Unfortunately, you may not be so fortunate. The company wants to expand its service to the EU with, for example, Italy, Greece, and the Netherlands as potential partners. At this point, it is unclear whether Clearview has violated European laws. If they have harvested images from EU citizens, their software may violate the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, Article 4 (14) of which covers the processing of biometric data. But their legal standing is quite unclear now and all that the European Commission has said is that it is following the press report and is in consultation with EU data protection authorities.

Following the press reports is clearly not enough. The European Commission needs to act, better sooner than later. Clearview, and the companies experimenting with a similar strategy of scraping the Internet, are a clear threat to us all. We want to live in a society where we are able to move and act freely in the outside world. We do not want anyone, not even state agents, to constantly monitor us when we appear in public spaces.

Not long ago, the European Commission seemed to have understood our desire to live in free societies. It planned to ban, at least for now, facial recognition technology. However, the planned ban is dropped from the the latest draft of their paper on artificial intelligence. The least they should do is to put it back.

PS: Do you want to read more about issues of privacy, surveillance, safety, and security? Are you interested in how they are related to the health of our democracies? Read the #meandmyrights series by our head of advocacy, Israel Butler, HERE.