California watchdog has strong words for Clearview, but CEO says they’re mistaken
A consumer watchdog is barking loudly at Clearview AI and its facial recognition system, with a new letter to California’s Attorney General accusing the firm of operating “with callous disregard for the privacy rights of individual citizens” and representing “a clear and present danger to our societal norms and our privacy.” Clearview AI CEO Hoan Ton-That, however, says the allegations contain “numerous serious inaccuracies.”
In his letter and accompanying report, Consumer Watchdog Attorney Ryan Mellino cites a key provision in California’s Constitution, enacted by public vote in 1972, which guarantees citizens the right to “pursue and obtain privacy.” He argues that Clearview’s process, which scrapes photos on social media and the public internet to build its database of face biometrics, contravenes this principle, and that urgent regulatory action is necessary given that a previous moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement has lapsed.
That three-year moratorium, however, was limited to the use of facial recognition on police body cams, and therefore did not prevent firms such as Clearview from continuing to do unrelated business with law enforcement in the state. The legislation governing it did make note of the potential for errors in face-matching technology, stating that “facial recognition and other biometric surveillance technology has been repeatedly demonstrated to misidentify women, young people, and people of color and to create an elevated risk of harmful ‘false positive’ identifications.”
In a statement to Biometric Update, CEO Hoan Ton-That points out that the firm’s algorithm has been assessed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, “and found to be highly accurate across all demographics.” He also argues that Consumer Watchdog is wrong about Clearview breaking certain laws with its tech, which uses facial geometry and measurements to compare uploaded images with a database of 40 billion photos.
Consumer Watchdog’s letter claims the firm’s current practices do not comply with “right to opt-out” provisions of the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), flouts laws designed to protect minors, and markets its tools to police and law enforcement agencies as a public good, which infringes on Constitutional rights.
But Ton-That clarifies that Californians do have the right to opt out, and that “images of Californians who have exercised their right to opt-out of our data processing are blocked from any subsequent collection.” He also says that, as a biometric search engine with a mission to stop child sexual exploitation, Clearview AI is careful about how it collects kids’ data.
“Clearview AI is fully compliant with California law, including law relating to the data of minors,” he says. “It is important to note that Clearview AI does not possess any information regarding the age of any people who appear in any public online photo that we have collected.”
“We understand the sensitivity involved with identifying children,” he says. “Our mission is to protect children.”
The Consumer Watchdog report grants that there are potential beneficial uses for biometric facial recognition that is well-regulated, but doesn’t believe that Clearview AI’s activities qualify, since the firm has from the start “flagrantly disregarded social and ethical norms that even companies like Google and Facebook refuse to transgress.”
The letter also includes a call to action from state policymakers, daring them to demonstrate their commitment to the the inalienable right to privacy and urging them to “use all the powers available to your offices to enjoin the use of Clearview AI’s facial recognition technology by any public agency or department, and to take all punitive action deemed appropriate in light of Clearview AI’s repeated and flagrant violations of law.”
It will not be the first time Ton-That and Clearview AI have faced opposition in California: in 2020, residents of California and Illinois sued the company for violating the CCPA and the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA) .
This week, the company reached an agreement in principle to settle a class action suit also involving the retailer Macy’s, alleging that it violated BIPA.