Activists Sue Clearview AI, Alleging Facial Recognition Surveillance

Immigrant rights organizations Mijente Support Committee and NorCal Resist Fund, along with four activists sued facial recognition company Clearview AI Inc. and other unknown defendants on Tuesday for their purported unlawful surveillance. The plaintiffs seek to enjoin the defendants from “illegally acquiring, storing, and selling their likenesses, and the likenesses of millions of Californians, in its quest to create a cyber surveillance state.”  

The Alameda County, Calif. complaint recounted Clearview AI’s allegedly illicit scraping and collection of more than three billion photographs of individuals without their knowledge or consent in order to create its facial recognition database. The plaintiffs added that Clearview AI has “provided thousands of government agencies, and private entities access to its database, which they can use to identify people.” The plaintiffs alleged that Clearview AI’s “mass surveillance technology disproportionately harms immigrants and communities of color.”

Specifically, Clearview reportedly uses extracted facial geometry to create an individual “faceprint” which can connect an individual’s image with other images of that person. The plaintiffs proffered that Clearview AI’s end product allows users to upload a photograph and match it to the database. The plaintiffs contended that a user could “photograph a stranger at a political rally or house of worship,” upload the photograph to the facial recognition database and “instantly see other photographs of the same person linked to various social media platforms and websites,” these sites often include other information about the individual. 

As a result, the plaintiffs argued that Clearview AI’s surveillance “provides instantaneous access to almost every aspect of our digital lives.” The plaintiffs also stated that Clearview has been banned internationally, including in Canada. U.S. municipalities and law enforcement agencies have also banned the use of Clearview AI or other facial recognition technology, in part because of the age, gender, and race bias facial recognition was found to have in studies. However, the plaintiffs averred that Clearview AI “continues to sell access to its database to California police agencies and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)” and allegedly Clearview AI provides access to its database in areas where facial recognition surveillance has been banned, including cities in Alameda County. 

The plaintiffs contended that “the ability to control their likenesses and biometric identifiers – and to continue to engage in political speech … free from the threat of clandestine and invasive surveillance – is vital to Plaintiffs, their members, and their missions.”

“Privacy is enshrined in the California constitution, ensuring all Californians can lead their lives without the fear of surveillance and monitoring,” Sejal Zota, a lead attorney in the case and the legal director of Just Futures Law, a law project working to support grassroots organizations, said in a press release. “Clearview AI upends this dynamic, making it impossible to walk down the street without fear your likeness can be captured, stored indefinitely by the company, and used against you any time in the future. There can be no meaningful privacy in a society with Clearview AI.”

Meanwhile, Clearview AI via its attorney Floyd Abrams said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times that Clearview AI “complies with all applicable law and its conduct is fully protected by the 1st Amendment.”

The plaintiffs alleged that Clearview AI violated their rights under the California constitution, California’s consumer privacy and protection laws, and California common law. In particular, the causes of action include: common law appropriation of likeness, violation of the California Constitution, and violation of California’s Unfair Competition Law.

The plaintiffs request injunctive relief; an award for damages, costs, and fees; and other relief. The plaintiffs are represented by BraunHagey & Borden LLP as well as Just Futures Law.

Clearview AI has faced a litany of lawsuits over its surveillance practices. Organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the state of Vermont have sued the company for its surveillance and data collection practices. However, this is one of the first lawsuits filed on behalf of activists and related organizations.