The Clearview AI facial recognition app is not welcome in Canada and the company that developed it should remove the faces of Canadians from its database, the country’s privacy commissioner said on Wednesday .
“What Clearview is doing is mass surveillance, and it’s illegal,” Commissioner Daniel Therrien said at a press conference. He forcefully denounced the company as putting the whole company “continually in a police line.” Although the Canadian government does not have the legal power to enforce the takedown of photos, the position – the strongest a country has taken against the company – was clear: “This is completely unacceptable.”
Clearview has collected more than three billion photos from social media and other public websites to create a facial recognition app that is now used by more than 2,400 U.S. law enforcement agencies, according to the company. When an agent performs a search, the app provides links to websites where the person’s face has appeared. The scope of business scope and law enforcement was first reported by The New York Times in January 2020.
Mr. Therrien, along with three regional privacy commissioners in Canada, opened an investigation into Clearview a year ago, after the company article was published. Privacy laws in Canada require obtaining consent from people to use their personal data, giving the government reason to pursue an investigation. Australian and UK authorities are jointly conducting their own investigation.
Dozens of law enforcement agencies and organizations across Canada have used the app, according to the commissioners, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. A Canadian law enforcement officer told the Times last year it was “the biggest breakthrough of the past decade” in investigating child sex abuse crimes. “Thousands of searches” were conducted, according to a commissioners report, but only one agency was paying for the app, mainly because a number of groups were using it as part of a free trial.
According to commissioners’ reportClearview said it does not need the consent of Canadians to use facial biometric information because the information came from photos that were on the Internet. There is an exception in the privacy law for publicly available information. The commission disagreed.
“Information collected from public websites, such as social networks or professional profiles, and then used for unrelated purposes, does not fall under the ‘publicly available’ exception,” according to The report. Commissioners objected to the images being used in a way that the photo posters had not intended and in a way that could “create a risk of significant harm to these people.”
Clearview AI said it plans to challenge the decision in court. “Clearview AI does not collect public information from the Internet, which is explicitly permitted,” Doug Mitchell, lawyer for Clearview AI, said in a statement. “Clearview AI is a search engine that collects public data, just like large companies, including Google, which is licensed to operate in Canada.”
The commissioners, who noted that they did not have the power to impose fines on companies or place orders, sent a “letter of intent” to Clearview AI telling them to stop offering their services. facial recognition in Canada, stop scratching the faces of Canadians, and delete images already collected.
This is a difficult order: it is not possible to tell someone’s nationality or place of residence from their face alone.
Hoan Ton-That, chief executive of Clearview AI, said on Wednesday that due to the investigation, the company ceased operations in Canada last July, but did not intend to proactively remove the Canadians from its database.
The company has previously made an effort to remove faces after breaking local privacy laws. Last year, Clearview was sued in Illinois for violating that state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act, which states that businesses must obtain people’s consent before using images of their faces. Clearview attempted to remove faces from residents of Illinois, for example, by reviewing photo metadata and geographic information. It also allows state residents to request deletion by uploading photos of themselves via an “opt-out form”.
Mr Ton-That said Clearview allows Canadians to opt out of the database in the same way.
Mr. Therrien was not satisfied with this solution. “You realize the irony of the remedy, forcing individuals to provide additional personal information about them,” he said.
Mr Ton-That said he was eager to challenge the ruling in court. “It’s a simple matter of public information and who has access to it and why,” he said. “We don’t want a world where only Google and a few other tech companies have access to public information.”