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Maker of face-scan software agrees to limit access to database

The agreement bars Clearview AI from providing individuals, Illinois police departments and most businesses access to its database of billions of faceprints.

CHICAGO (CN) — Surveillance technology firm Clearview AI reached a settlement Monday with the Illinois American Civil Liberties Union and several other civil rights groups, agreeing to restrict access to its database of billions of images of people's faces from around the globe.

Clearview, based out of New York City, claims on its website that it maintains "the largest known database of 10+ billion facial images sourced from public-only web sources, including news media, mugshot websites, public social media, and other open sources."

The company has ties to conservative and alt-right political movements. It was founded in 2017 by Richard Schwartz, a Republican political consultant who advised former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Hoan Ton-That, an Australian entrepreneur who has been associated with alt-right figures such as former Breitbart writer Charles Johnson. Clearview launched using over $8.6 million in equity investments, including $200,000 from billionaire right-wing political activist Peter Thiel.

Clearview states on its website, as does Ton-That himself, that it provides access to its database only to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

"Clearview AI’s posture regarding sales to private entities remains unchanged. We would only sell to private entities in a manner that complies with BIPA [Biometric Information Privacy Act]. Our database is only provided to government agencies for the purpose of solving crimes," Ton-That said.

However, a May 2020 lawsuit filed against Clearview by the Illinois ACLU in Cook County Circuit Court alleges the company has also sold database access to private businesses like the Chicago Cubs and wealthy individuals such as "actor turned venture capitalist Ashton Kutcher."

The ACLU suit claims this access, as well as Clearview's extensive cooperation with police departments in Illinois since 2019, constitutes violations of the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act of 2008. BIPA prevents private businesses from collecting, storing or using individuals' biometric data, such as fingerprints or face images, without those individuals' knowledge and written consent.

"Clearview has violated and continues to violate the BIPA rights of... Illinois residents at a staggering scale. Using face recognition technology, Clearview has captured more than three billion faceprints from images available online, all without the knowledge - much less the consent - of those pictured," the lawsuit alleges.

The settlement reached Monday ends the lawsuit and allows Clearview to avoid further civil litigation for BIPA violations from the ACLU. In exchange, Clearview agreed to prevent private individuals and businesses from accessing the database for as long as BIPA remains law in Illinois. It also agreed to bar government agencies in the Prairie State - including state, county and local police departments - from accessing its database for five years. The company is still allowed to provide database access to federal government agencies and their contractors, as well as to state government agencies outside Illinois.

Another stipulation calls for Clearview to feature an opt-out request form on its website. Illinois residents can use this opt-out feature by uploading a photo of their face with instructions to omit their face from database search results, including those searches made by law enforcement agencies. The company will pay $50,000 to advertise the opt-out feature via Facebook and Google.

“Clearview can no longer treat people’s unique biometric identifiers as an unrestricted source of profit. Other companies would be wise to take note, and other states should follow Illinois’ lead in enacting strong biometric privacy laws,” Illinois ACLU Deputy Director Nathan Freed Wessler said in a statement.

Linda Xóchitl Tortolero, president of Mujeres Latinas en Acción, a Chicago nonprofit that is another plaintiff in the 2020 suit, agreed. She said the settlement is "a big win for the most vulnerable people in Illinois."

“Much of our work centers on protecting privacy and ensuring the safety of survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault," Xóchitl Tortolero said. "Before this agreement, Clearview ignored the fact that biometric information can be misused to create dangerous situations and threats to their lives. Today that’s no longer the case."

Clearview's attorney Lee Wolosky, of the firm Jenner & Block, said the settlement was also a win for the company.

"This settlement is a huge win for Clearview AI. Clearview AI will make no changes to its current business model," Wolosky said. "It will continue to expand its business offerings in compliance with applicable law. And it will pay a small amount of money to cover advertising and fees, far less money than continued litigation would cost."

Ton-That also said the settlement would not prevent Clearview from selling its facial recognition software algorithm, sans the database, to interested private customers.

"We have let the courts know about our intention to provide our bias-free facial recognition algorithm to other commercial customers, without the database, in a consent based manner... This settlement does not preclude Clearview AI selling its bias-free algorithm, without its database, to commercial entities on a consent basis, which is compliant with BIPA," he said.

Despite the victory proclamations from both sides, the settlement must still be approved by Cook County Judge Pamela McLean Meyerson before it becomes official. A hearing is scheduled for May 11 for her to consider the agreement and the parties' joint motion to dismiss the 2020 lawsuit.

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