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Vermont sues Clearview AI over “unethical” facial screen scraping

Vermont sues Clearview AI over “unethical” facial screen scraping
[Photo: Ryoji Iwata/Unsplash]

Vermont’s attorney general sued Clearview AI in state court on Tuesday, saying the controversial face recognition company’s use of images scraped from the internet violates its consumer protection and data brokerage laws. The state is seeking a court order requiring that Clearview stop collecting photos of state residents and destroy the data and photos of Vermonters it already has on file.

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The company reportedly gathers images from social media and other websites, then uses facial recognition technology to be able to identify other pictures of the same people, offering the matching service to law enforcement to identify suspects and crime victims caught on video. It drew national attention after a report by Kashmir Hill in The New York Times in January.

“I am disturbed by this practice, particularly the practice of collecting and selling children’s facial recognition data,” Attorney General T.J. Donovan said in a statement. “This practice is unscrupulous, unethical, and contrary to public policy. I will continue to fight for the privacy of Vermonters, particularly our most vulnerable.”

In a statement emailed to Fast Company, attorney Tor Ekeland, who represents Clearview AI, says the service only collects “public images available to everyone on the public Internet” and collects less information than traditional search engines such as Google and Bing.

“Clearview AI operates in strict accordance with the U.S. Constitution and American law,” Ekeland says. “We would welcome the opportunity to work collaboratively with the State of Vermont — outside the adversarial environment of a courtroom — to further refine our proven, crime-solving technology for the benefit of all. However, we are ready to defend our, and the public’s, Constitutional right to access freely available public information.”

Similarly, on its website, the company has said that it only gathers “public information.” But in the state lawsuit, lawyers from the attorney general’s question that argument, saying photos on social media are displayed based on legal standards and “reasonable expectations” of users.

“One of those expectations was not that someone would amass an enormous facial-recognition-fueled surveillance database, as the idea that this would be permitted in the United States was, until recently, unthinkable,” according to the complaint.

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