International probe launched into facial recognition firm that scrapes images from the internet

Key Points
  • The U.K. and Australia have launched a joint probe into U.S. facial recognition firm Clearview AI, which scrapes social media sites like Facebook and Twitter for images of people's faces.
  • The probe was announced on the website of the U.K. Information Commissioner's Office on Thursday.

In this article

Monitors display a video showing facial recognition software in use at the headquarters of the artificial intelligence company Megvii, in Beijing, May 10, 2018. Beijing is putting billions of dollars behind facial recognition and other technologies to track and control its citizens. 
Gilles Sabrié | The New York Times

Privacy regulators in the U.K. and Australia have announced a joint probe into Clearview AI's "data scraping" practices. 

The New York-headquartered company has built a facial recognition database by taking images from social media platforms and other websites without the consent of the people featured. It is reported that Clearview has "scraped" more than 3 billion images from the internet to build its database, which law enforcement agencies use to try and identify criminals.

"The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) and the UK's Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) have opened a joint investigation into the personal information handling practices of Clearview Inc., focusing on the company's use of 'scraped' data and biometrics of individuals," reads a statement on the ICO's website.

"The investigation highlights the importance of enforcement cooperation in protecting the personal information of Australian and UK citizens in a globalized data environment."

CNBC contacted Clearview for comment but did not immediately hear back.

Clearview's platform allows clients to upload a photo of an individual and match it to photos of that person that are stored in Clearview's database.

Clearview doesn't publish the names of its clients, but BuzzFeed News reported in February that it had worked with 2,200 law enforcement agencies, companies, and individuals worldwide. Macy's, Walmart, Bank of America, and Target have all reportedly used the service.

In May, Clearview said it would stop working with non–law enforcement entities and private companies amid regulatory scrutiny and potential law suits.

Clearview pulled out of Canada earlier this week after privacy protection authorities launched an investigation into the firm. As a result, a contract between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Clearview has been terminated. 

Canadian authorities said they will continue their investigations into Clearview.

"An ongoing issue under investigation by the authorities is the deletion of the personal information of Canadians that Clearview has already collected as well as the cessation of Clearview's collection of Canadians' personal information," the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada said.

Google, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have sent cease-and-desist letters to Clearview after they learned it was scraping images from their platforms. 

Last month, the European Data Protection Board warned that Clearview technology was likely to be illegal in Europe.

"The use of a service such as Clearview by law enforcement authorities in the European Union would, as it stands, likely not be consistent with the EU data protection regime," it said.

In February, BuzzFeed reported that the company has expanded into 26 countries outside the U.S. including Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The report stated that Clearview had "engaged" with national law enforcement agencies, government bodies, and police forces in those countries.