OAIC and UK ICO announce joint investigation into Clearview AI

By Cameron Abbott, Warwick Andersen, Rob Pulham and Keely O’Dowd

On 9 July 2020, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) and the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) announced they have opened a joint investigation into the personal information handling practices of Clearview AI Inc.

The OAIC has stated the investigation will focus on ClearView AI’s use of “scraped” data and biometrics of individuals.

The OAIC and ICO’s announcement follows the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s announcement earlier this year that it had opened an investigation into Clearview AI.

Clearview AI is a facial recognition technology company that advertises itself as a “new research tool used by law enforcement agencies to identify perpetrators and victims of crime”. Its most well-publicised app, Clearview, is a facial recognition app that apparently allows a user to upload any photo of an individual and retrieve matching photos of that person from the Internet, with links to where those photos are located.

As a technological concept it is easy to see why law enforcement agencies are keen to understand how the tool might assist them in their efforts to identify and locate “persons of interest”. However, the app’s use by law enforcement, and its practice of scraping images from leading social networking sites, has led to it facing its share of adverse publicity and controversy – including this kind of scrutiny by data privacy regulators around the globe.

The use of facial recognition technology is considered controversial given the ethical and privacy concerns it raises, in addition to concerns about how the database of reference images has been collected. Media reports have raised concerns about the technology used by Clearview AI to scan and collect the images of individuals on the Internet, which goes beyond the technology developed by Silicon Valley or law enforcement agencies.

The OAIC and ICO’s joint investigation demonstrates the willingness of regulators to work cooperatively across jurisdictions, which we have been noting for several years. It also shows the willingness of the Australian regulator to get involved in these investigations early while they are still topical, in contrast to its action against Facebook arising out of the Cambridge Analytica revelations, which is only this year playing out in Australian courts. We will be watching this investigation closely. Stay tuned for further updates.

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