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CPD no longer using Clearview AI facial recognition software, department says after ACLU sues controversial firm

The lawsuit seeks to protect the privacy of residents, specifically survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse which are “uniquely harmed by face recognition surveillance,” the civil rights group said.

Chicago police officials work in the department’s Crime Prevention and Information Center. 
FBI

Chicago police confirmed Thursday that the department was no longer using facial recognition software developed by Clearview AI, a controversial firm that was sued in Cook County hours earlier by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Sun-Times first reported in January that Chicago police had entered in a two-year contract with the Vernon Hills-based tech firm CDW government to use Clearview’s technology, which allows users to compare images against a database of billions of photos lifted from the internet. After the lawsuit was filed on Thursday, CPD spokesman Howard Ludwig said that $49,875 contract was cut short by Clearview on May 1.

“A prorated refund has been issued to the Department following the termination of the contract,” said Ludwig, who said the department’s contract with another facial recognition firm remains intact.

The move came just months after another police spokesman said facial recognition software like Clearview added “jet fuel” to the department’s ability to identify and locate suspects.

The complaint filed Thursday in Cook County alleges that Clearview is in violation of the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, a law that protects current and former residents’ facial and fingerprint identifiers from being used without consent.

The company has also been hit with a series of federal lawsuits over alleged violations of the same state law. Three potential class action suits are currently being lodged in the Northern District of Illinois, with the most recent filing coming last week.

Clearview has claimed it’s taking steps to comply with the state law as the company attempts to beat back an injunction preventing the use of biometric data belonging to current and former Illinois residents.

In a May 6 filing related to the first suit brought against Clearview in Illinois, the firm vowed to cancel all accounts with non-governmental clients, as well as “any entity based in Illinois.” The termination of the CPD’s contract appears to have been related to this commitment.

New suit aims to protect abuse victims

The new suit specifically aims to protect survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse, undocumented immigrants and other vulnerable communities “uniquely harmed by face recognition surveillance,” according to a statement from the ACLU.

“We can change our names and addresses to shield our whereabouts and identities from stalkers and abusive partners, but we can’t change our faces,” said Mallory Littlejohn, legal director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the rights of survivors of sexual violence and exploitation that’s listed as a plaintiff in the case.

“Clearview’s practices put survivors in constant fear of being tracked by those who seek to harm them, and are a threat to our security, safety, and well-being,” Littlejohn added.

The ACLU said Clearview’s compiling of the massive database “embodied the nightmare scenario privacy advocates long warned of, and accomplished what many companies — such as Google — refused to try due to ethical concerns.”

Tor Ekeland, an attorney representing Clearview, shot back in a statement, claiming the company’s facial recognition tool is merely “a search engine that uses only publicly available images accessible on the internet.”

“It is absurd the ACLU wants to censor which search engines people can use to access public information on the internet,” Ekeland said. “The First Amendment forbids this.”

‘End privacy as we know it’

The lawsuit was brought by the ACLU, the ACLU of Illinois and Edelson PC, a law firm that has filed other privacy suits related to BIPA and recently secured a $550 million settlement with Facebook after a class action suit alleged the social networking giant’s use of facial recognition violated the state law. In addition to the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, other listed plaintiffs include the Sex Workers Outreach Project, the Illinois State Public Interest Research Group and Mujeres Latinas en Accion.

Clearview came under heavy fire after the New York Times published a front-page story in January detailing the little-known startup’s facial recognition software and raising privacy concerns.

Clearview has since faced increased scrutiny and mounting legal challenges as its list of clients has incrementally been made public. A review by Buzzfeed News found that many of the company’s 105 clients in Illinois were local law enforcement agencies, though the report noted that the Illinois secretary of state’s office and the Chicago Cubs have also used the software.

“Companies like Clearview will end privacy as we know it, and must be stopped,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “This menacing technology gives governments, companies, and individuals the unprecedented power to spy on us wherever we go — tracking our faces at protests, AA meetings, political rallies, places of worship and more.”