Controversial facial recognition firm barred from taking on most private clients, operating in Illinois for 5 years

A settlement filed Monday in Cook County offers a stinging blow to Clearview AI, which has built a facial recognition database with more than 20 billion images ripped from popular websites and apps.

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Hoan Ton-That, CEO of Clearview AI, demonstrates the company’s facial recognition software using a photo of himself in New York on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. In a Monday, May 9, 2022 legal filing, the company has agreed to restrict the use of its massive collection of face images to settle allegations that it collected people’s photos without their consent. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File) ORG XMIT: NY638

Hoan Ton-That, CEO of Clearview AI, demonstrates the company’s facial recognition software using a photo of himself in New York on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022.

Seth Wenig/AP

Clearview AI, the Manhattan-based developer of a highly controversial facial recognition tool, agreed Monday to stop providing its technology to most private clients and to halt doing business in Illinois for five years as part of a settlement in a lawsuit filed in Cook County.

The suit was brought by the ACLU and its Illinois chapter in May 2020, just four months after the New York Times reported that Clearview had culled billions of photographs from popular websites to create an unprecedented facial recognition app that counted both law enforcement agencies and businesses as subscribers.

The ACLU alleged the technology violated Illinois’ stringent Biometric Information Privacy Act, or BIPA, which protects current and former residents’ facial and fingerprint identifiers from being used without consent.

“Companies like Clearview will end privacy as we know it, and must be stopped,” Nathan Freed Wessler, a deputy director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said at the time.

Under the settlement, Clearview will be permanently barred from making its massive database available to most businesses and private entities across the county, except for those who adhere to provisions in the state law surrounding the retention, collection, disclosure and destruction of biometric data.

In addition, it prohibits the company from selling access to any entity in Illinois for five years, including to law enforcement and other government agencies. 

Buzzfeed Newsfound 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 also used the software. The Chicago Police Department previously entered into a nearly $50,000 contract that was cut short roughly a month before the lawsuit in Cook County was filed, along with the company’s other contracts in the state.

“This settlement demonstrates that strong privacy laws can provide real protections against abuse,” Freed Wessler said in a statement Monday. “Clearview can no longer treat people’s unique biometric identifiers as an unrestricted source of profit.”

Lee Wolosky, an attorney representing Clearview, called the agreement “a huge win” for his client.

“Clearview AI will make no changes to its current business model,” Wolosky, of the firm Jenner and Block, said in a statement. “It will continue to expand its business offerings in compliance with applicable law. And it will pay a small amount of money to cover advertising and fees, far less money than continued litigation would cost.”

The Chicago law firm Edelson PC filed the suit on behalf of a list of plaintiffs specifically seeking to protect survivors of domestic violence, undocumented immigrants and other vulnerable communities “uniquely harmed by face recognition surveillance,” the ACLU said. 

Edelson previously secured a $650 million settlement with Facebook last February after a federal, class-action suit in California alleged its use of facial recognition for photo-tagging violated Illinois’ biometric protection law, marking a major victory for digital privacy advocates. The social media giant later announced it was shutting down its facial recognition system.

Clearview’s deal will likely have more serious implications on the shadowy startup’s business model, which has already prompted harsh public scrutiny and a deluge of federal lawsuits, including others arguing violations of the Illinois law. 

The company had pivoted to marketing only to law enforcement agencies and recently rolled out a new version of its app, which allows subscribers to upload a picture and match it against a database of more than 20 billion photos ripped from the web. But the company has also detailed plans to start currying new clients from the business world.

The Washington Post reported in February that investors were pitched on an “expansion plan” focused on increasing sales to various business sectors.

Then last month, Ton-That told the Associated Press that Clearview was exploring a side venture that would allow businesses to use the company’s algorithms to verify a person’s face for bank transactions and other purposes. He insisted that venture wouldn’t involve the company’s massive cache of images, which it has continued collecting despite stiff opposition from regulators, social media firms and advocates.

In a statement, Ton-That said Clearview’s database “is only provided to government agencies for the purpose of solving crimes,” adding the firm will only sell to private businesses in compliance with Illinois’ biometric law.

“We have let the courts know about our intention to provide our bias-free facial recognition algorithm to other commercial customers, without the database, in a consent based manner,” he said. “Today, facial recognition is used to unlock your phone, verify your identity, board an airplane, access a building, and even for payments.

“This settlement does not preclude Clearview AI selling its bias-free algorithm, without its database, to commercial entities on a consent basis, which is compliant with BIPA.”

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