Imagine walking down the street with a pair of glasses that can identify every person you see, down to their interests, friends, and even where they live. Though this could easily be the premise of a Twilight Zone episode, it’s actually a description of a “dystopian future” that, according to a proposed class action lawsuit filed this week, could become a reality if a controversial surveillance company is left unchecked.
The 32-page lawsuit out of California claims New York start-up Clearview AI, Inc. has illegally “scraped” photos from “hundreds, if not thousands” of websites in order to build a database containing the biometric information, namely face templates, of millions of Americans. If that wasn’t bad enough, the suit alleges that Clearview then sold access to the database to a wide range of third parties, from government agencies to private companies, all without consumers’ knowledge or consent.
According to the lawsuit, Clearview’s data collection practices not only violate California and Illinois privacy laws, but could potentially destroy privacy as we know it and pave the way to a future of constant surveillance. As the complaint puts it:
“Imagine a rogue employee of one of Clearview’s customers who wants to stalk potential romantic partners, a foreign government using it to discover information to use to blackmail key individuals, or law enforcement agencies prying into the private lives of citizens with no probable cause or reasonable suspicion. The ‘dystopian future’ of a mass surveillance state has arrived with the erosion of privacy for billions of people, and Clearview is at the helm.”
Lawsuit Claims Clearview Collected Data Without Consent
Potential dystopian future aside, the lawsuit centers on the allegation that Clearview used especially unsavory data collection methods to harvest consumers’ private biometric information without their knowledge or permission.
“Biometrics,” the case explains, refers to an individual’s unique physical characteristics and includes identifiers such as fingerprints or, in this case, faceprints. An individual’s faceprint, the suit goes on, can be generated by measuring his or her facial geometry—i.e., the distance between the eyes, nose, and mouth—and storing the information as a string of data points that can be used to identify the person.
According to the case, Clearview founders Hoan Ton-That and Richard Schwartz developed software that could automatically “scrape” images from websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and analyze the faces in each image to create unique faceprints for millions of people. When combined with other personal details gleaned from individuals’ online profiles, these faceprints could be used to identify almost anyone whose image was uploaded to Clearview’s database, the suit alleges.
Who Can Access Clearview’s Data?
While Clearview purports that its database is intended to be used for law enforcement purposes, the lawsuit claims the company has sold access to the database to a wide array of clients.
In fact, a recent article published by BuzzFeed News claims Clearview AI’s hundreds of credentialed users include the FBI, Customs and Border Protection, Interpol, retailers such as Best Buy and Macy’s, and even a foreign sovereign wealth fund. According to documents obtained by BuzzFeed, Clearview has secretly sought out clients from all kinds of industries and allowed them to access American citizens’ private data “with little or no oversight or awareness from their own management.” As stated in the article:
This data provides the most complete picture to date of who has used the controversial technology and reveals what some observers have previously feared: Clearview AI’s facial recognition has been deployed at every level of American society and is making its way around the world.”
Should We Prepare for a Dystopian Future?
According to the lawsuit, Clearview’s surveillance database is concerning to say the least. The case claims the computer code underlying the company’s software application includes language that could allow it to be paired with augmented reality glasses.
Although Ton-That has insisted that Clearview is not planning to utilize such technology, the lawsuit claims the tool could potentially allow a wearer to identify in real time every person they see and potentially “where they live, what they like to do, and who they know and associate with.”
The proposed class action further alleges that Clearview has publicly admitted that the company suffered a data breach on February 26, 2020 that exposed its entire list of customers. The suit claims this incident is evidence that Clearview “cannot adequately safeguard” the sensitive information of proposed class members and must be kept in check.
Who Does the Lawsuit Look to Cover?
The case proposes to cover individuals in California or Illinois whose biometric information was collected or used by Clearview without consent.
More specific definitions of the lawsuit’s four proposed sub-classes can be found in the complaint below.
How Do I Join the Lawsuit?
Typically, there’s nothing you need to do to join a class action lawsuit. If the case settles, those covered by the settlement should receive notice with instructions on what to do next.
We have more information about the process here, or you can join the discussion in the comments below.
How Do I Receive Updates About the Lawsuit?
While there’s no "sign-up" for this suit, you can get lawsuit updates sent straight to your inbox by signing up for ClassAction.org’s newsletter here.