ACLU Sues Clearview AI Over “Radical Erosion Of Privacy”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued facial recognition startup Clearview AI “to put a stop to its unlawful surreptitious capture and storage of millions of Illinoisans’ sensitive biometric identifiers.” The ACLU and other plaintiffs claim that Clearview AI has violated the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA) by capturing and storing at least three billion photos from online images to create its online facial recognition database.

Other plaintiffs in the suit include groups representing survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, undocumented immigrants and other vulnerable groups that could be at particular risk by this surveillance. The ACLU noted that this is “the first [lawsuit] to force any face recognition surveillance company to answer directly to [the aforementioned groups].” Additionally, “Companies like Clearview will end privacy as we know it, and must be stopped,” Nathan Freed Wessler, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project said. 

The ACLU claimed that Clearview AI is “seeking to profit off its use of ‘face recognition technology’ to capture billions of personally identifying ‘faceprints,’ which “is a biometric identifier that is used to discern or verify an individual’s identity.” The facial recognition technology uses a person’s facial characteristics, “from the distance between one’s eyes and the shape of one’s cheekbones to the pattern of freckles on one’s forehead – to capture their biometric signature.”

According to the ACLU, this poses a security risk because a person cannot change their biologic identifiers and it is nearly impossible to completely cover a face in public. “The capture and storage of faceprints leaves people vulnerable to data breaches and identity theft. It can also lead to unwanted tracking and invasive surveillance by making it possible to instantaneously identify everyone at a protest or political rally, a house of worship, a domestic violence shelter…” Additionally, “because the common link is an individual’s face, a faceprint can also be used to aggregate countless additional facts about them gathered from social media and professional profiles, photos posted by others, and government IDs.”The ACLU argued that Clearview AI has failed to take the necessary privacy and security measures with this information, including violating BIPA’s requirements for prior consent and data deletion.

While the database was only intended to be shared with law enforcement and government agencies, it was shared with commercial businesses, including Walmart and Wells Fargo, until recently. The ACLU said Clearview’s conduct violates people’s privacy rights “on an unprecedented scale.” Specifically, “[t]he extraordinary breadth and volume of online photos used by Clearview to capture faceprints for its database means that it is a near certainty that anyone whose photos are posted to publicly accessible portions of the internet will have been subjected to surreptitious and nonconsensual faceprinting by Clearview.”

The Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Explotiation (CAASE), another plaintiff, advocates on behalf of the rights and privacy for sexual violence survivors. They noted that “survivors are often forced to flee abusive people and circumstances and, in extreme circumstances, change their identities in order to protect themselves from further harm or harassment. While traditional identifiers, like names, can be changed, there is no way for most individuals to change their biometric information…For survivors who need to protect their identities in order to stay safe, biometric privacy is essential to their security, safety, and well-being.”

“Clearview has violated the rights of all Illinoisans, but the harms from this technology are not shared equally across our state,” Linda Xóchitl Tortolero, president and CEO of Mujeres Latinas en Acción, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering Latinas, including by providing services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, and undocumented immigrants, said. “For many Latinas and survivors, this technology isn’t just unnerving, it’s dangerous, even life-threatening. It gives free rein to stalkers and abusive ex-partners, predatory companies, and ICE agents to track and target us. This company has no business exploiting Illinoisans’ sensitive biometric information without our knowledge and consent.”

Clearview AI has faced its share of litigation and opposition. There are multiple lawsuits against it, including the leading class action against it, where the judge has denied its motion to stay. Four suits were filed against it in a month, Vermont sued the company, it faced two data breaches. Facebook and YouTube requested that Clearview AI stop scraping their platforms. Clearview recently stated that it was canceling all non-government contracts.