The American Civil Liberties Union sued Clearview AI on Thursday, arguing that the facial recognition startup violated the privacy of Illinois residents in amassing a database of more than 3 billion photos scraped from websites and social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter.
In describing a “nightmare scenario” in the complaint filed in Illinois state court, the ACLU and other groups representing domestic violence survivors, sex workers, and immigrants said they were suing to put an end to Clearview’s “unlawful surreptitious capture and storage of millions of Illinoisans’ sensitive biometric identifiers.” The lawsuit alleges that the facial recognition startup violated the state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), a 2008 law that prevents companies from collecting or storing fingerprints or scans of citizen’s faces without their consent.
While the BIPA allows Illinois residents to sue companies for up to $5,000 for each violation, Nate Freed Wessler, an ACLU staff attorney, told BuzzFeed News that the plaintiffs were not seeking money.
“We’re not seeking monetary damages, only injunctive relief, he said. “We want to see Clearview delete the faceprints it illegally captured and also stop capturing them in the future.”
Since a story in the New York Times in January revealed it to the public, Clearview AI has come under scrutiny from lawmakers, news organizations, and civil liberties groups like the ACLU, which has called the company’s business “privacy-destroying face surveillance.” In February, a BuzzFeed News investigation found that Clearview had provided its facial recognition software to more than 2,200 federal agencies, police departments, and private companies, despite its CEO’s claim that the tool was “strictly for law enforcement.”
In recent months, the company has been hit with a slew of lawsuits in New York, California, Virginia, and Vermont. In federal court in Illinois, a separate lawsuit seeking class action status is currently asking that a judge issue a temporary injunction against Clearview AI to prevent it from using the biometric information of current and past Illinois residents until the case reaches a conclusion.
In response to the proposed temporary injunction, Clearview AI recently said it would restrict its use of data from Illinois citizens and would cease relationships with all private companies.
Responding to Thursday’s ACLU lawsuit, Clearview lawyer Tor Ekeland likened Clearview AI to “a search engine that uses only publicly available images on the internet.” (In past interviews, Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That has conceded that even if once-public photos are taken down or made private, they still remain in the company’s databases.)
“It is absurd that the ACLU wants to censor which search engines people can use to access public information on the internet,” Ekeland told BuzzFeed News. “The First Amendment forbids this.”
Wessler called Clearview’s argument a perversion of the First Amendment and a misreading of the ACLU’s lawsuit.
“Clearview is as free as it wants to look at public photos,” he said. “What they can’t do surreptitiously and without consent is generate people’s faceprints. That is conduct and not speech, and that conduct is not protected by the First Amendment.”
In February, a BuzzFeed News investigation found that law enforcement agencies that target undocumented people, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, had used Clearview to run thousands of searches. The company has also marketed its facial recognition tool to help police find and arrest sex workers, according to Clearview advertisements BuzzFeed News obtained via public record requests. Clearview has also provided its product to entities it designated as “friends” and told cops to “run wild” with its software.
Thursday’s lawsuit isn’t the first time the ACLU has clashed with Clearview. In 2019 pitch documents to local police departments that were obtained by BuzzFeed News, the company claimed that a panel of reviewers used ACLU methodology to verify that its facial recognition was “100% accurate.” The ACLU pushed back, calling the Clearview’s efforts a misguided attempt at “manufacturing endorsements.”