Canada Confronts Clearview AI Over Facial Recognition App

Canada has denounced facial recognition app Clearview AI and, despite the lack of legal authority, demanded that the company delete all Canadian faces from its database. Canada’s privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien stated that the company puts all of society “continually in a police lineup.” Clearview AI has scraped 3+ billion photos from social media networks and other public sites. Canada is the first country to take such a strong stand against the app that is currently in use by 2,400+ U.S. law enforcement agencies.

The New York Times notes that Therrien and three Canadian regional privacy commissioners began their investigation into Clearview AI a year ago, after reading a NYT report in January 2020 “on the scope of the company’s reach and law enforcement application.”

In Canada, privacy laws require consent for use of personal data, but “dozens of law enforcement agencies and organizations across Canada used the app,” including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. One law enforcement officer there told NYT that the app was “the biggest breakthrough in the last decade” in targeting child sexual abuse crimes.

Meanwhile, Clearview AI reiterated that it “did not need consent from Canadians to use facial biometric information, because that information came from photos that were on the public Internet.” The Canadian commissioners retorted 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.”

Clearview AI said it would challenge that determination in court, with its lawyer Doug Mitchell stating that the company is “a search engine that collects public data just as much larger companies do, including Google, which is permitted to operate in Canada.” In response, the commissioners sent Clearview AI a “letter of intention” telling it to cease offering its services in Canada, cease scraping Canadian faces and delete those already collected.

Clearview AI chief executive Hoan Ton-That said the company “stopped operating in Canada last July, but had no plans to proactively delete Canadians from its database … [although it] has previously taken pains to delete faces after running afoul of local privacy laws.”

Last year, in response to an Illinois lawsuit, it “tried to delete Illinois residents’ faces by, for example, looking at photo metadata and geographical information … [and] also allows state residents to request removal by uploading photos of themselves via an ‘opt-out form’.” UK and Australia authorities are also “jointly pursuing an inquiry of their own” into Clearview AI.

Forbes reports that Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have all sent Clearview AI cease-and-desist letters. “Our investigation reveals the vast amount of personal information collected without people’s knowledge or consent,” said British Columbia information and privacy commissioner Michael McEvoy. “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.”

Related:
Here’s a Way to Learn if Facial Recognition Systems Used Your Photos, The New York Times, 1/31/21
There Are Spying Eyes Everywhere — and Now They Share a Brain, Wired, 2/4/21