Immigrant rights groups sue facial-recognition company Clearview AI

CEO speaks out about Clearview AI's controversial facial recognition technology

Two immigrant-rights groups in California are suing Clearview AI, claiming the face-recognition company violates privacy laws by building the largest database of human faces in the nation and providing law enforcement with the database even in cities that have banned facial recognition.

"Clearview has provided thousands of governments, government agencies and private entities access to its database, which they can use to identify people with dissident views, monitor their associations and track their speech," claims the lawsuit, filed on Tuesday in Alameda County superior court.

Clearview, a tech startup founded in 2017, has amassed 3 billion photos of people pulled from social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Venmo — usually without the people's knowledge or consent. The company has fielded requests from more than 2,200 law-enforcement agencies and private companies, and its database is larger than the FBI's, the lawsuit claims.  

Most recently, the company has seen a spike in use as law enforcement tracks down participants in January 6's violent protest at the U.S. Capitol, the New York Times reported.

But this surveillance also erodes privacy protections, "making it impossible to walk down the street without fear your likeness can be captured, stored indefinitely by the company, and used against you any time in the future," said Sejal Zota, a lead attorney in the case.

CBS Reports - City Under Surveillance

The plaintiffs are the immigrant rights groups Mijente and Norcal Resist, as well as four activists living in California. The four have been outwardly supportive of Black Lives Matter and critical of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — stances that open them up to retaliation by police agencies that use Clearview, the lawsuit contends.

"Clearview allows anyone with access to its database to capture a single photo of an individual, and with a few keystrokes, to determine the identity of the person and their personal details in real time — as they shop in the grocery store, attend a political rally or walk down the street," the lawsuit claims. 

Clearview contends its conduct is protected by the First Amendment, and last year hired prominent attorney Floyd Abrams to represent it. The company faces lawsuits in Illinois, where a privacy law forbids using biometric information like voice prints or face scans without consent, and in Vermont.

"Fully protected by First Amendment"

Asked for comment on the Alameda lawsuit, a Clearview spokesperson forwarded a comment from Abrams: "Clearview AI complies with all applicable law and its conduct is fully protected by the First Amendment," the comment said.

Clearview has previously compared itself to Google, which trawls the entire internet to serve up information on individuals that might be incriminating or embarrassing.  

Multiple cities around the country, including many in the Bay Area, have banned the use of face-recognition technology by government agencies or by law enforcement. Tuesday's lawsuit claims that Clearview continues to peddle its services despite these law-enforcement bans.

CEO of controversial AI startup dismisses critics

Simply by virtue of using social media to communicate with friends and family, these activists open themselves up to biometric monitoring and processing, the lawsuit argues. Because Clearview can also identify people appearing in the background of a photo, someone could find themselves in a database after posing for a snapshot at a party or by inadvertently passing by someone taking a selfie outside.

Recent research has shown that face-recognition technology can be wildly inaccurate when used to identify people of color and Black people in particular. The tech has been implicated in several high-profile wrongful arrests.

Tuesday's suit is seeking an immediate injunction against Clearview AI's work in California, which would ban the company from collecting biometric data in the state, as well as deletion of any California residents in Clearview's database.

Earlier this year, Canada found Clearview to be illegal and asked the company to remove the information of Canadians in its database. The European Union has also found the technology to violate its data-privacy law.

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