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Facial recognition firm Clearview facing £17m fine for "serious breaches" of the UK’s data protection laws

David Murphy

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has announced its provisional intent to impose a potential fine of just over £17m on Clearview AI Inc – a company that describes itself as the ‘World’s Largest Facial Network’. In addition, the ICO has issued a provisional notice to stop further processing of the personal data of people in the UK and to delete it following alleged serious breaches of the UK’s data protection laws.

Today’s announcement follows a joint investigation by the ICO and the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC), which focused on Clearview’s use of images, data scraped from the internet and the use of biometrics for facial recognition. Customers of Clearview can also provide an image to the company to carry out biometric searches, including facial recognition searches, on their behalf to identify relevant facial image results against a database of over 10bn images.

The ICO said the images in Clearview’s database are likely to include the data of a substantial number of people from the UK and may have been gathered without people’s knowledge from publicly available information online, including social media platforms. The ICO also understands that the service provided by Clearview was used on a free trial basis by a number of UK law enforcement agencies, but that this trial was discontinued and Clearview AI Inc’s services are no longer being offered in the UK.

The ICO said its preliminary view is that Clearview appears to have failed to comply with UK data protection laws in several ways including failing to process the information of people in the UK in a way they are likely to expect or that is fair; failing to have a process in place to stop the data being retained indefinitely; failing to have a lawful reason for collecting the information; failing to meet the higher data protection standards required for biometric data (classed as ‘special category data’ under the GDPR and UK GDPR); failing to inform people in the UK about what is happening to their data; and asking for additional personal information, including photos, which may have acted as a disincentive to individuals who wish to object to their data being processed.

Clearview now has the opportunity to make representations in respect of the alleged breaches. The ICO said that any such representations will be carefully considered before a final decision is made, which is likely to be by mid-2022.

Announcing today’s provisional decision, the UK Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, said: “I have significant concerns that personal data was processed in a way that nobody in the UK will have expected. It is therefore only right that the ICO alerts people to the scale of this potential breach and the proposed action we’re taking. UK data protection legislation does not stop the effective use of technology to fight crime, but to enjoy public trust and confidence in their products technology providers must ensure people’s legal protections are respected and complied with.

“Clearview AI Inc’s services are no longer being offered in the UK. However, the evidence we’ve gathered and analysed suggests Clearview AI Inc were and may be continuing to process significant volumes of UK people’s information without their knowledge. We therefore want to assure the UK public that we are considering these alleged breaches and taking them very seriously.”