Australia’s national privacy regulator has ordered controversial facial recognition company Clearview AI to destroy all images and facial templates belonging to individuals living in Australia, following a BuzzFeed News investigation.
On Wednesday, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) said Clearview had violated Australians’ privacy by scraping their biometric information from the web and disclosing it via a facial recognition tool built on a vast database of photos scraped from Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and other websites.
In February 2020, BuzzFeed News first reported that individuals from four of Australia’s law enforcement agencies were listed as having access to Clearview’s facial recognition technology, according to internal company data. That same data showed that the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and state forces in Queensland, Victoria, and South Australia, police had run more than 1,000 searches. The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and the OAIC opened a joint inquiry into the company’s use of personal data following that report.
“When Australians use social media or professional networking sites, they don’t expect their facial images to be collected without their consent by a commercial entity to create biometric templates for completely unrelated identification purposes,” OAIC head Angelene Falk said in a statement. “The indiscriminate scraping of people’s facial images, only a fraction of whom would ever be connected with law enforcement investigations, may adversely impact the personal freedoms of all Australians who perceive themselves to be under surveillance.”
Clearview maintains it has done nothing wrong. “Clearview AI has not violated any law nor has it interfered with the privacy of Australians,” the company’s attorney Mark Love said in a statement. “Clearview AI does not do business in Australia, does not have any Australian users.”
In March, a BuzzFeed News investigation based on Clearview AI’s own internal data showed how the New York–based startup distributed its facial recognition tool, by marketing free trials for its mobile app or desktop software, to thousands of officers and employees at more than 1,800 US taxpayer-funded entities, according to data that runs up until February 2020. In August, another BuzzFeed News investigation revealed that police departments, prosecutors’ offices, universities, and interior ministries from around the world ran nearly 14,000 searches over the same period with Clearview AI’s software.
According to Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That, Clearview’s practice of scraping images and other data from social media sites is entirely legal. “We only collect public data from the open internet and comply with all standards of privacy and law,” he said in a statement. “I respect the time and effort that the Australian officials spent evaluating aspects of the technology I built. But I am disheartened by the misinterpretation of its value to society.”