Even a limited win for digital privacy can feel significant, especially when Clearview AI is on the losing end.
Clearview AI, the facial-recognition company which made headlines in January of 2020 for secretly scraping billions of photos from social media sites, will be prohibited from selling access to its tools under the terms of a settlement filed Monday in federal court. Notably, the settlement only applies to most private companies, and does not block sales to law enforcement (except in the state of Illinois).
The settlement is the result of a lawsuit in which the ACLU was the plaintiff, with the organization noting that the suit was filed on behalf of “vulnerable communities uniquely harmed by face recognition surveillance” such as “survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, undocumented immigrants, [and] current and former sex workers[.]”
At issue is the 2008 Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), which explicitly precludes private companies from acquiring state residents’ “biometric information” without prior notification and consent. In scraping the internet for people’s photos, which the company then used to power its database, Clearview AI is alleged to have violated this law.
Monday’s settlement, which still needs to be approved by the court, was hailed by organizations advocating on behalf of people’s digital privacy. The fight, however, is far from over. Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, made it clear in a statement that Monday’s limited ban is only the first step of many.
“This is a milestone for civil rights, and the ACLU deserves our thanks for once again safeguarding our Constitution,” wrote Cahn. “But banning Clearview AI in one state is not enough; we need a national ban.”
Indeed, while exploiting billions of surreptitiously copied photos for profit just got marginally more difficult, without federal privacy protections, Clearview remains free to sell facial-recognition technology to police departments across most of the country — organizations which have a demonstrated history of misusing such tools.
But until that time, we’ll take Monday’s win — however small.