The UK has become the fourth country to require Clearview AI, the controversial facial recognition company, to delete its citizens' data entirely…but there's reason to be skeptical about the effectiveness of this. approach.
According to The Verge, the United Kingdom has just become the fourth country to require Clearview AI, the controversial facial recognition company, to delete all data relating to British nationals. Downing Street is following in the footsteps of the French, Italian and Australian governments which have already taken similar measures.
As a reminder, Clearview claims to have in its possession more than 20 billion images gleaned from the four corners of the web. In particular, the firm has drawn unreservedly from public platforms such as Facebook or Instagram to feed its database, without any explicit agreement from the parties concerned.
The objective: to resell them through a biometric system allowing facial recognition to be carried out on a very large scale. A practice that has caused a lot of reaction, both from privacy organizations and from legislators. In January 2020, the New York Times produced a chilling and eloquent portrait of the firm. Its title: “The company that could complete confidentiality as we know it”, just that. A daring choice of words that says a lot about the ethical unease it generates, and which has already earned it several lawsuits.
Indeed, many of them felt that the company had no legitimate reason to carry out such a harvest without any transparency approach. The United States was among the first to step up to the plate through the American Civil Liberties Union. The institution ended up getting Clearview AI to stop selling its data to American companies… with the exception of federal authorities, under the pretext of national security. Decidedly, we do not lose the North on the side of the FBI and the NSA.
Europe is stepping up against this wild collection
The British were also among the firm's clients for a time. According to The Verge, several institutions such as the police, the National Crime Agency and the Ministry of Defense have used its database. According to the Office of the Information Commissioner, this collaboration has now ceased; but all the data collected on residents of the UK would still be accessible to customers in other countries.
An intolerable situation for the authorities. “This company doesn't just identify people,” says John Edwards, the government's Information Commissioner. “It monitors their behavior and offers the result as a commercial service. This is unacceptable”, he insists.
The country therefore decided to impose a fine on the firm and asked it to completely purge its database of any element related to the subjects of Queen Elizabeth. The height of irony: according to Wired, even Facebook would have asked Clearview to stop plundering its site…
A sword in the water ?
It remains to be seen what the scope of this new request will be. Because as such, Clearview AI remains an exclusively American company. It has not established the slightest base in Europe. The staff of the company therefore defends itself by stating that technically, it is in no way subject to the legislation of the countries in question.
As it stands, it is therefore unlikely that Clearview AI will yield to the injunctions of European governments. These data represent a considerable financial windfall, and the authorities do not seem to have the slightest leverage or means of pressure. Especially since Cleaview AI continues to work with US federal authorities… who are certainly delighted to have access to a database of European audiences.
So there is a good chance that this is a new stab in the water; for now, nothing prevents Clearview AI from turning a deaf ear. A situation that once again revives the famous ethical debate around these databases, with lots of questions about individual freedoms and digital sovereignty in the background.
It will therefore be interesting to follow the case. Will the various legislators find an attack surface to force Clearview AI to comply with European regulations? Whether they succeed or not, it seems more and more urgent to put in place a clear, uniform and global legal framework to anticipate some of the terrifying scenarios that seem to become clearer with each passing day.