The UK’s national privacy watchdog on Monday warned Clearview AI that the controversial facial recognition company faces a potential fine of £17 million, or $23 million, for “alleged serious breaches” of the country’s data protection laws. The regulator also demanded the company delete the personal information of people in the UK.
Photos in Clearview AI’s database “are likely to include the data of a substantial number of people from the UK and may have been gathered without people’s knowledge from publicly available information online, including social media platforms,” the Information Commissioner’s Office said in a statement on Monday.
In February 2020, BuzzFeed News first reported that individuals at the National Crime Agency, the Metropolitan Police, and a number of other police forces across England were listed as having access to Clearview’s facial recognition technology, according to internal data. The company has built its business by scraping people’s photos from the web and social media and indexing them in a vast facial recognition database.
In March, a BuzzFeed News investigation based on Clearview AI’s own internal data revealed how the New York–based startup marketed its facial recognition tool — by offering free trials for its mobile app or desktop software — to thousands of officers and employees at more than 1,800 US taxpayer-funded entities, according to data that runs up until February 2020. In August, another BuzzFeed News investigation showed how police departments, prosecutors’ offices, and interior ministries from around the world ran nearly 14,000 searches over the same period with Clearview AI’s software.
Clearview AI no longer offers its services in the UK.
The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) announced the provisional orders following a joint investigation with Australia’s privacy regulator. Earlier this month, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) demanded the company destroy all images and facial templates belonging to individuals living in the country, following a BuzzFeed News investigation.
“I have significant concerns that personal data was processed in a way that nobody in the UK will have expected,” UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said in a statement. “It is therefore only right that the ICO alerts people to the scale of this potential breach and the proposed action we’re taking.”
Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That said he is “deeply disappointed” in the provisional decision.
“I am disheartened by the misinterpretation of Clearview AI’s technology to society,” Ton-That said in a statement. “I would welcome the opportunity to engage in conversation with leaders and lawmakers so the true value of this technology which has proven so essential to law enforcement can continue to make communities safe.”
Clearview AI’s UK attorney Kelly Hagedorn said the company is considering an appeal and further action. The ICO expects to make a final decision by mid-2022.