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28.05.2021 Technology

Privacy groups file complaint to EU countries over facial recognition technology

By David Coffey with RFI
HECTOR RETAMAL AFP/File
LISTEN MAY 28, 2021
HECTOR RETAMAL AFP/File

Privacy organisations have filed a complaint to regulators in five European countries, including France, over the practices of an online company that has built a powerful facial recognition database using images "scraped" from the web.

In a statement issued on Thursday by Privacy International, the use of images - including those from people's social media accounts - to offer biometrics services to private companies and law enforcement by tech company Clearview AI "goes far beyond what we could ever expect as online users." 

Clearview markets its technology's ability to help law enforcement, yet critics say facial recognition is open to abuse and could ultimately eliminate anonymity in public spaces - pointing to cases like China's massive public surveillance system.

Facial recognition has also been attacked for failing to distinguish non-white people's faces and women as well as it can identify white, male images -- potentially leading to false positives.

Fears over "mass surveillance" 

Alongside three other digital rights organisations, Privacy International has filed complaints with data regulators in France, Austria, Italy, Greece and Britain.

"We expect them to join forces in ruling that Clearview's practices have no place in Europe, which would have meaningful ramifications for the company's operations globally," PI said.

In February, Canada's privacy commissioner found that the firm's activity "is mass surveillance and it is illegal" under the country's privacy laws.

British and Australian privacy watchdogs also launched a joint probe of their own last year.

"Just because something is 'online' does not mean it is fair game to be appropriated by others in any which way they want to -- neither morally nor legally," said Alan Dahi, a data protection lawyer at Austrian privacy group Noyb.

Clearview founder admits technology breaks rules

Clearview came to public prominence in a January 2020 New York Times report that detailed how it was already working with law enforcement, including the US FBI and Department of Homeland Security.

On its website, Clearview boasts the "largest known database of 3+ billion facial images sourced from public-only web sources, including news media, mugshot websites, public social media, and many other open sources".

Company founder Hoan Ton-That acknowledged in 2020 that he was breaching the terms of service of Facebook and other social media sites by gathering users' photos.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube (Google) and LinkedIn (Microsoft) have all protested against Clearview's practices.

Last year, tech firms including Microsoft and Amazon suspended sales of facial recognition software to police forces when confronted with 2020's Black Lives Matter movement.

Only last week, Amazon extended the original one-year moratorium "until further notice".

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