ICO issues provisional view to fine Clearview AI Inc over £17 million

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has announced its provisional intent to impose a potential fine of just over £17 million on Clearview AI Inc – a company that describes itself as the ‘World’s Largest Facial Network’. In addition, the ICO has issued a provisional notice to stop further processing of the personal data of people in the UK and to delete it following alleged serious breaches of the UK’s data protection laws.

Today’s announcement follows a joint investigation by the ICO and the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC), which focused on Clearview AI Inc’s use of images, data scraped from the internet and the use of biometrics for facial recognition. Customers of Clearview AI Inc can also provide an image to the company to carry out biometric searches, including facial recognition searches, on their behalf to identify relevant facial image results against a database of over 10 billion images.

The images in Clearview AI Inc’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 ICO also understands that the service provided by Clearview AI Inc was used on a free trial basis by a number of UK law enforcement agencies, but that this trial was discontinued and Clearview AI Inc’s services are no longer being offered in the UK.

The ICO’s preliminary view is that Clearview AI Inc appears to have failed to comply with UK data protection laws in several ways including by:

  • failing to process the information of people in the UK in a way they are likely to expect or that is fair;
  • failing to have a process in place to stop the data being retained indefinitely;
  • failing to have a lawful reason for collecting the information;
  • failing to meet the higher data protection standards required for biometric data (classed as ‘special category data’ under the GDPR and UK GDPR);
  • failing to inform people in the UK about what is happening to their data; and
  • asking for additional personal information, including photos, which may have acted as a disincentive to individuals who wish to object to their data being processed.

Clearview AI Inc now has the opportunity to make representations in respect of these alleged breaches set out in the Commissioner’s Notice of Intent and Preliminary Enforcement Notice. Any representations will be carefully considered by the Information Commissioner before any final decision is made. As a result, the proposed fine and preliminary enforcement notice may be subject to change or no further formal action. We expect to make a final decision by mid-2022.

The ICO’s announcement follows the conclusion of the OAIC’s investigation earlier this month that found Clearview AI Inc in breach of Australian Privacy laws.

Announcing today’s provisional decision, the UK Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, said:

“I have significant concerns that personal data was processed in a way that nobody in the UK will have expected. It is therefore only right that the ICO alerts people to the scale of this potential breach and the proposed action we’re taking. UK data protection legislation does not stop the effective use of technology to fight crime, but to enjoy public trust and confidence in their products technology providers must ensure people’s legal protections are respected and complied with.

“Clearview AI Inc’s services are no longer being offered in the UK. However, the evidence we’ve gathered and analysed suggests Clearview AI Inc were and may be continuing to process significant volumes of UK people’s information without their knowledge. We therefore want to assure the UK public that we are considering these alleged breaches and taking them very seriously.”

Background

  1. Clearview AI Inc’s facial recognition app allows users to upload an image of an individual’s face and match it to photos of that person’s face collected from the internet. It then links to where the photos appeared. The system is reported to include a database of more than 10 billion images that Clearview AI claims to have taken or ‘scraped’ from various social media platforms and other websites.
  2. The ICO is the UK’s independent regulator for data protection and information rights law, upholding information rights in the public interest, promoting openness by public bodies and data privacy for individuals.
  3. The OAIC regulates the Australian Privacy Act 1988, which applies to most Australian Government agencies and organisations with an annual turnover of more than AU$3 million, as well as those that trade in personal information. The investigation follows preliminary enquiries with Clearview AI.
  4. The joint investigation was conducted in accordance with the Australian Privacy Act and the UK Data Protection Act 2018. It was also conducted under the Global Privacy Assembly’s Global Cross Border Enforcement Cooperation Arrangement and the MOU between the ICO and the OAIC.

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