Clearview AI may face £17m fine in UK for facial recognition breach

30 Nov 2021

Image: © Goffkein/

UK privacy authorities said the US company may have unlawfully gathered data without people’s knowledge.

US facial recognition company Clearview AI faces a potential £17m fine in the UK for “serious breaches” of data privacy laws.

Clearview AI, which describes itself as “the world’s largest facial network”, has built a database with billions of images from the internet and works with customers such as law enforcement agencies to compare facial data against its database.

According to the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), Clearview AI’s database is “likely to include the data of a substantial number of people from the UK”, with images that may have been gathered without people’s knowledge from sources such as social media platforms.

The company’s technology was also used “on a free trial basis” by multiple UK law enforcement agencies before being discontinued, the ICO added.

Elizabeth Denham, UK information commissioner, said that Clearview AI collected personal data in a way that “nobody in the UK will have expected” and that people need to be alerted to the scale of this potential breach.

“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.”

What’s the argument?

The ICO’s contention is that Clearview AI was and may be continuing to collect and store “significant volumes” of UK citizens’ data without their knowledge, even though the company’s services are no longer being offered in the country.

It accused Clearview AI of failing to have a lawful reason to continue collecting data, not meeting the higher data protection standards of GDPR rules in the UK and not being transparent to the public about data collection practices.

It has announced its provisional intent to impose a potential fine of more than £17m on the company.

According to BBC News, Clearview AI has called the ICO’s claims “factually and legally incorrect”. Hoan Ton-That, chief executive of Clearview AI, said in a statement that he was “deeply disappointed” the ICO had “misinterpreted” the company’s technology and intentions.

“My company and I have acted in the best interests of the UK and their people by assisting law enforcement in solving heinous crimes against children, seniors and other victims of unscrupulous acts.”

He argued that Clearview AI only collects public data on the internet and complies with “all standards” of privacy and law.

Regulatory pressure

The ICO’s announcement comes following a joint investigation by the UK body and the Australian Information Commissioner.

Earlier this month, Australia’s top information authority ordered Clearview AI to stop collecting facial images and biometric templates of Australian citizens, and to delete what it already has.

“The covert collection of this kind of sensitive information is unreasonably intrusive and unfair,” said Australia’s privacy commissioner, Angelene Falk.

Australia and UK are not the only countries where Clearview AI faces regulatory scrutiny. Earlier this year, Canada’s federal privacy commissioner also determined that the company violated privacy laws by collecting facial images of Canadians without their consent.

There has been growing regulatory pressure to limit or ban mass surveillance technologies across the world. Earlier this year, EU proposals for regulating AI were met with criticism by EU watchdogs for not going far enough when it comes to live facial recognition in public places.

Last month, lawmakers in the European Parliament called for a ban on biometric mass surveillance technologies, such as facial recognition tools, citing the threat these technologies can present to human rights.

Facebook parent company Meta announced earlier this month it will delete face recognition data from more than 1bn users collected over a decade, and those who opted in for the face recognition feature will no longer be automatically recognised in photos and videos on the platform.

Don’t miss out on the knowledge you need to succeed. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of need-to-know sci-tech news.

Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic