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Private and Illinois entities blocked from Clearview AI facial biometrics, app details explained



All accounts for controversial biometric identification company Clearview AI’s facial recognition service held by private companies and individuals not associated with government and law enforcement agencies, or any client located in the state of Illinois, will be canceled, BuzzFeed News reports.

The company is facing several lawsuits, including a suit under Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA) which could require the company to delete part of its database and alter its image-scraping practices. Now Clearview will halt all transactions with non-government customers in response to that suit.

BuzzFeed News previously reported retailers Best Buy, Walmart, Macy’s and Target as well as Bank of America, the NBA, and numerous other private organizations have used the app. So have governments in several non-U.S. countries including Saudi Arabia, which recently made headlines by removing flogging from its legal system on the same day its most prominent human rights campaigner died in prison amid allegations of official neglect.

Now Clearview has filed a motion in federal court claiming that it is attempting to comply with BIPA, by cancelling the accounts of every customer who was not either associated with law enforcement or some other federal, state, or local government department, office, or agency,” according to a filing. “Clearview is also cancelling all accounts belonging to any entity based in Illinois,” the company’s counsel writes.

The company has also found a way to identify images associated with the state from metadata, so its web-scraping software can avoid them. Many social media platforms strip metadata from posted photos, however.

More than 105 entities based in Illinois have used Clearview’s technology, including the secretary of state’s office, and the Chicago Police Department, which has been confirmed as a customer of 30 seats, at nearly $50,000 for a two-year contract, according to the report. The office of Illinois’ secretary of state said it has used Clearview to “assist other law enforcement agencies” for about six months.

An attorney for Clearview told BuzzFeed News in an email that the company is continuing to pursue its core mission, which is helping law enforcement identify criminals and victims.

The article details a number of other commercial and law enforcement entities in Illinois and around the U.S. using Clearview’s facial recognition.

The BIPA suit plaintiff’s attorneys issued a statement that the change does not provide the relief the injunction to delete part of its image horde would, or prevent the exposure of state residents to privacy harms.

Clearview is facing proposed class actions in California and New York, in addition to Illinois.

How unique is Clearview’s service though?

X Venture Founder and technology lawyer Jeffrey J. Blatt notes that most writing about Clearview have not used it, and many have mischaracterized the way it works. In a CPO Magazine article, Blatt shares his views on the app’s utility for criminal investigations, as opposed to his views on its legality or the appropriateness of existing laws on the subject.

There is some basis for comparison, as Blatt points out, with TinEye an example of a web-based service in which users upload a photo for comparison to web images, and FindFace and Google Face Search offering similar services.

Blatt goes to some lengths to emphasize that facial recognition matches are not admissible as evidence in court, as Clearview points out in its app’s initial splash screen. He addresses some inaccurate claims about what it actually returned as a search result, which is possible matching images and links to their sources. Blatt also dismisses claims of “error rate,” “false positives” and “racial bias” as “in actual practice non-issues,” as any matches are presented to the investigating officer, who is responsible for all confirmation and follow-up.

A photo of Blatt from 30 years ago quickly returned recent images, and searches of him with his face occluded by sunglasses and other props returned no matches, either true or false. Searches with images of people without social media or public web presences returned no results as well.

Images of people with different skin color worked with Asian and Hispanic people, but not as well for African American individuals, though Blatt notes his test was uncontrolled and the images he used varied widely. The system generally returned no suggestion, or images that were clearly not the same person.

In conclusion, Blatt argues that the policies held by all law enforcement agencies on the use of investigative tools make their use of Clearview at worst no more of a threat to privacy than the services noted above, which are not restricted to law enforcement.

Whether society and the industry are rather to tackle the implications of that observation remains to be seen.

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