3 Billion Online Pics Scraped for Face-Match Database

John Lister's picture

Canadian privacy regulators say a company that used online photos to train artificial intelligence tools breached privacy rules. They said Clearview had used "the mass collection of biometric information from billions of people, without express consent."

US company Clearview offers services to law enforcement agencies and private businesses trying to identify people from a photo. It maintains a database of more than three billion images which it uses to try to find a match using artificial intelligence.

Clearview gathered most of these pictures by "scraping" online sites such as Flickr. That caught the attention of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and its local counterparts in Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec.

Company Cites 'Freedom Of Expression'

They said the database included images of Canadian adults and children and thus constituted collecting sensitive biometric information without consent, which breaches Canadian privacy laws. They also said some of the uses of the information would not be allowed even with consent.

Clearview said it did not have a "real and substantial connection" to Canada and this did not come under the country's privacy laws. This is not the case, however. (Source: theregister.com)

The company also said it did not need to get consent because the image had already been placed in the public domain. It also argues that the combination of the benefit to society of improved law enforcement and unlikeliness of significant harm to individuals meant that its business and freedom of expression outweighed privacy rights.

Mounties Under The Microscope

The privacy regulators recommended that Clearview should stop offering services to Canadian clients, stop collecting images of Canadian individuals, and delete any images it already has of Canadians.

Clearview has already stopped serving Canadian clients but "did not demonstrate a willingness to follow the other recommendations." The regulators say that if may take enforcement action if Clearview continues to hold and collect the images of Canadians. (Source: gc.ca)

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada is also conducting an ongoing investigation into whether the Royal Canadian Mounted Police broke any rules when it used Clearview's services up to June last year.

What's Your Opinion?

Should privacy rules ban companies collecting and using images in this way? Does it matter that the individuals had posted the images online? Does the benefit to law enforcement outweigh privacy rights?

Rate this article: 
Average: 5 (7 votes)


davolente_10330's picture

Just because an image appears somewhere on the internet, but (correct me if I am wrong) my understanding is that this situation does NOT give Clearview carte blanche to use it for their nefarious facial recognition database without permission. They seem to be under the impression that images automatically lose copyright because they have appeared in the public domain and they can use them for any purpose that they see fit. Time they were straightened out, methinks.

stooobeee's picture

Personally, it has gone on underneath the table for so long, no one can really stop it. It does not make it morally right. Everyone today knows what is going on in everybody else's backyard. As one Physicist put it so simply: "If you want to keep a secret, don't tell anyone." Each person is personally accountable for what he/she puts on the Internet and allows people to see and view. Today, responsibility is merely a byword, without teeth or meaning. I am responsible for what I think, say, and do.

Lipl1_2237's picture

Most users of Facebook, Twitter and similar services expect some reasonable level of privacy when using the service. Clearview "scraping" of photos appears to have been done in violation of most of the TOS of the services "https://www.cnet.com/news/clearview-ai-hit-with-cease-and-desist-from-google-over-facial-recognition-collection/". Clearview joined the service and then hacked those systems so in my opinion they joined the services under false pretense and hacked the service and yes FB is just as guilty of the practice but on joinin you signed away your rights.

buzzallnight's picture

that does not put it in the public domain!
If you look at the fine print
you gave rights to use the picture to Facebook or Flickr
and they could sue Clearview!

you should never put any of your real and correct information on the internet!

The really big problem is if they are allowed to use
drivers license databases
and they should not be.....

russoule's picture

so what you are saying is that if I download pictures of my best friends family, since they were published on FB, I am guilty of invading their "privacy"? I "might" be guilty of breaking my contract with FB, but that picture has been entered into the "public domain" by whoever posted it, unless the posting was a "limited to xxxx friends". check out what the posting says for "sharing" - no one - friends only - friends of friends - public.

I just posted a photo of my wedding from 50 years ago and posted it as "public". I have NO EXPECTATION that it is private because I chose "public".

as for Clearview and the police organizations, I have mixed feelings. on the one hand it seems that accumulating such a database is another step to 1984 but on the other hand it is useful to determine just who that suspect in an armed robbery or a violent demonstration is. would all the naysayers feel the same if it was their personal property or life that was assaulted by "perpetrators unknown"? I kind of like the idea that if my camera records the thief-in-the-night entering my house, the police can find out who that thief is and arrest him/her/it/xe/ze/whatever.

buzzallnight's picture

if you download pictures of your best friends family,
since they were published on FB

and then put that picture on a T shirt which you sold for $20 each

yes, they and Facebook could sue you

You seem to have missed the part about Clearview is a business selling a product?

If you were driving down a road with a speed limit of 55
and you decided that the speed limit should be 70 miles an hour
you would still get a ticket for going over 55

because you don't make the laws.....
you also don't get to decide what public domain means.

russoule's picture

first of all, I didn't say ANYTHING about "selling" their faces. and if I did it without their authorization, yes THEY could sue me, but not FB. all FB can do is cancel my subscription. FB doesn't "own" those pics, they have merely been given a license to use them.

secondly, Clearview is obviously a "business" and the use of individuals facsimiles without authorization could easily lead to lawsuits - by the individuals, NOT by FaceBook. so Clearview would have a billion lawsuits to protect against? not very likely since those individuals have already given permission to Facebook for the "commercial use" of any photos they post.

now, I am not an attorney and have no specific knowledge of how the "law" would look at this, but I still think any ability to identify a scoundrel by the police is a good thing.

buzzallnight's picture

you are not an attorney....

rhcconsulting_14541's picture

One of the most common misconceptions is that anything on the Web is public domain. That is false. Copyright is essentially ownership. In most western countries copyright is automatic.

Placing your photos on Facebook or other social media sites only gives that site the non-exclusive rights required to post them on their site. It does not take away your ownership (copyright) nor extend those rights to anyone else. While you may be capable of downloading photos, you don't have any rights to use them.

By culling images, Clearview is in direct violation of copyright. Clearview has content on their website. They would sue anyone that tried to reuse it without permission. Whether they make it publicly accessible or not has nothing to do with whether it is copyrighted.

There is the additional issue of moral rights (control over HOW your content is used). Clearview is reselling content for which they neither have the legal nor the moral rights.