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EU privacy regulators cast doubt on legality of Clearview AI’s facial recognition software

A powerful committee of European privacy regulators has thrown into doubt the legality of facial recognition software supplied the controversial US firm Clearview AI.

It emerged earlier this year that the company, which scraped billions of social media photos from the web, had provided its software for free to hundreds of law enforcement agencies around the world, including the FBI and London’s Met police.

But now the legality of the companies’ European partnerships has been challenged by the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) – a committee of national privacy regulators such as the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Asked by MEPs to comment on the legality of using Clearview’s products in Europe, the EDPB said: “The EDPB shared […] concerns regarding certain developments in facial recognition technologies. The EDPB recalls that under the Law Enforcement Directive (EU) 2016/680, law enforcement authorities may process biometric data for the purpose of uniquely identifying a natural person only in accordance with the strict conditions of Articles 8 and 10 of the Directive.

“The EDPB has doubts as to whether any Union or Member State law provides a legal basis for using a service such as the one offered by Clearview AI. Therefore, as it stands and without prejudice to any future or pending investigation, the lawfulness of such use by EU law enforcement authorities cannot be ascertained.

“Without prejudice to further analysis on the basis of additional elements provided, the EDPB is therefore of the opinion that the use of a service such as Clearview AI by law enforcement authorities in the European Union would, as it stands, likely not be consistent with the EU data protection regime.”

The statement is likely to make uncomfortable reading for the Metropolitan Police Service and the National Crime Agency, both of which used Clearview’s technology, according to leaked documents.

Anna Barcciarelli, then a researcher at Amnesty International, told NS Tech at the time that the revelations were “extremely worrying”. She added: “According to media reports, the Metropolitan police used Clearview tech but denied it – and yet expect us to trust their use of facial recognition technology on London streets.”

Scrutiny of facial recognition in law enforcement has intensified in recent weeks protests over police brutality and systemic racism spread around the world following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota last month.

This week IBM vowed to stop selling general purpose facial recognition and Amazon Web Services followed a few days later by issuing a one-year moratorium on sales to police forces. However, analysts have questioned whether those decisions were driven by ethical or financial motivations.

In a statement emailed to NS Tech, Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That said: “Clearview AI has no current operations in the EU. Nevertheless, in accordance with GDPR provisions, Clearview AI processes data-access and data-deletion requests.”