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Activists and Rights Groups Sue Clearview AI, Warning 'We Won't Be Safe' Until Facial Recognition Firm Is Gone

"There can be no meaningful privacy in a society with Clearview AI," said lead attorney Sejal Zota.

Critics of facial recognition technology note that it is less effective in identifying women and minorities. (Photo: Violeta Stoimenova/Getty Images)

Various facial recognition technologies have been proven less accurate in identifying women and people of color. (Photo: Violeta Stoimenova/Getty Images) 

A group of civil liberties advocates and immigrant rights organizations on Tuesday sued Clearview AI in a Northern California court, alleging that the controversial facial recognition company illegally "scraped," or obtained, photos for its database and that its "mass surveillance technology disproportionately harms immigrants and communites of color." 

"Thousands of local police officers and federal agents, including ICE agents, can pull up Clearview on their phones, take your photo, and know everything about you."
—Jacinta Gonzalez, Mijente

Mijente, NorCal Resist, and five activists filed the suit (pdf) in Alameda County Superior Court in an attempt to stop the New York-based company from collecting data in California and to compel it to delete personal images and data already scraped from social media sites and stored in its database of over three billion photos.

The lawsuit claims the company's artificial intelligence software is being used by federal and state law enforcement agencies to identify people, in contravention of state and local statutes. In 2019, California became the third state after Oregon and New Hampshire to prohibit law enforcement use of facial recognition and other biometric tracking technology in officer body cameras. 

In recent years, several California municipalities including San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley have also passed laws banning or limiting police and other city agencies from using facial recognition technology. San Francisco's ban is being tested in a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU of Northern California, and local activists, who allege they were illegally surveilled at last year's Black Lives Matter protests. 

"Privacy is enshrined in the California constitution, ensuring all Californians can lead their lives without the fear of surveillance and monitoring," Sejal Zota, a lead attorney in the new suit, said in a statement. "Clearview AI upends this dynamic, making it impossible to walk down the street without fear your likeness can be captured, stored indefinitely by the company, and used against you any time in the future. There can be no meaningful privacy in a society with Clearview AI."

In an interview with CNN Business, Zota called Clearview AI's technology "a terrifying leap toward a mass surveillance state where people's movements are tracked the moment they leave their homes."

 

The plaintiffs argue that minorities are especially at risk of rights violations, with the lawsuit noting that "facial recognition algorithms have repeatedly been shown to perform poorly when examining the faces of people of color."

"Consequently, facial recognition technology has a far greater risk of misidentifying people of color," it states. 

 "Facial recognition technology has a far greater risk of misidentifying people of color."
—lawsuit

Jacinta Gonzalez, a senior organizer at Mijente, said in a statement that "thousands of local police officers and federal agents, including ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agents, can pull up Clearview on their phones, take your photo, and know everything about you—whether you're at a protest, on the subway, or on the side of the road. This is going to be used to surveil us, arrest us, and in some cases deport us."

Clearview AI has been denounced around the world, with the European Union last year asserting that the company likely violates its privacy laws and Canada's privacy commissioner last month condemning the firm's use of "scraped" biometric data. 

In addition to privacy concerns, the company has also come under fire for ties to far-right individuals in the U.S.

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