Controversial facial recognition provider Clearview AI says it will no longer sell its app to private companies and non-law enforcement entities, according to a legal filing first reported on Thursday by BuzzFeed News. It will also be terminating all contracts, regardless of whether the contracts are for law enforcement purposes or not, in the state of Illinois.
The document, filed in Illinois court as part of lawsuit over the company’s potential violations of a state privacy law, lays out Clearview’s decision as a voluntary action, and the company will now “avoid transacting with non-governmental customers anywhere.” Earlier this year, BuzzFeed reported on a leaked client list that indicates Clearview’s technology has been used by thousands of organizations, including companies like Bank of America, Macy’s, and Walmart.
“Clearview is cancelling the accounts of every customer who was not either associated with law enforcement or some other federal, state, or local government department, office, or agency,” Clearview’s filing reads. “Clearview is also cancelling all accounts belonging to any entity based in Illinois.” Clearview argues that it should not face an injunction, which would prohibit it from using current or past Illinois residents’ biometric data, because it’s taking these steps to comply with the state’s privacy law.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit, David Mutnick, sued Clearview in January for violating his and other state residents’ privacy under the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), a rare and far-reaching piece of facial recognition-related legislation that makes it illegal for companies to collect and store sensitive biometric data without consent. The law is the same one under which Facebook settled a class-action lawsuit earlier this year for $550 million over its use of facial recognition technology to identify, without consent, the faces of people in photos uploaded to its social network.
According to BuzzFeed, Clearview has had at least 105 customers in Illinois, ranging from the Chicago Police Department to the office of the Illinois Secretary of State. A majority of those customers are law enforcement, BuzzFeed reports. It’s not clear if the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Chicago office or the Illinois division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, both of which have reportedly used Clearview’s database in the past, will now be prevented from using the platform under the outright Illinois ban.
“Clearview AI continues to pursue its core mission: to assist law enforcement agencies around the nation in identifying perpetrators and victims of crime, including horrific crimes such as trafficking and child abuse,” Lee Wolosky, the lawyer representing Clearview AI in the case, told BuzzFeed. “It is committed to abiding by all laws applicable to it.”
Clearview says in addition to ending its contracts, it will also take measures to prevent its technology from collecting data from Illinois residents by banning photos containing metadata that indicate the photo was taken in the state and banning URLs and Illinois-based IP addresses from its automated systems for collecting new data. The company says it’s also building an opt-out tool, but it’s not clear if that would be at the request of an Illinois-based individual and what exactly the process would involve.
It’s also unclear if any of these measures will be successful at preventing future privacy violations or dispelling the controversy around Clearview’s controversial approach to data collection, its sale of potential privacy-violating technology to law enforcement, and the lack of regulatory oversight governing how the company operates. Clearview’s database, which is provided to customers via an app and a website, already contains more than 3 billion photos collected in part by scraping social media sites against those services’ terms of service.
“These promises do little to address concerns about Clearview’s reckless and dangerous business model. There is no guarantee these steps will actually protect Illinois residents. And, even if there were, making promises about one state does nothing to end Clearview’s abusive exploitation of people’s faceprints across the country,” Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said in a statement given to The Verge.
“Instead of taking real steps to address the harms of face recognition surveillance, Clearview is doubling down on the sale of its face surveillance system to law enforcement and continues to fuel large scale violations of Americans’ privacy and due process rights,” Wessler added. “The only good that Clearview has achieved here is demonstrate the vital importance of strong biometric privacy laws like the one in Illinois, and of laws adopted by cities nationwide banning police use of face recognition systems.”
Clearview has received multiple cease-and-desist orders from Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other companies over its practices, but it’s not clear if the company has deleted any of the photos it’s used to build its database as directed by those cease-and-desist orders. In addition to the lawsuit in Illinois, Clearview is also facing legal action from California, New York, and Vermont.