Clearview AI — the controversial face-tracking company known for scraping more than 3 billion photos from social media sites including Facebook and Twitter — said it is ending its relationships with non–law enforcement entities and private companies amid regulatory scrutiny and several potential class action lawsuits.
Responding to one of those lawsuits, Clearview claimed in legal documents filed in an Illinois federal court on Wednesday that it was taking those voluntary actions and would “avoid transacting with non-governmental customers anywhere.” That specific suit, which argues Clearview violated an Illinois statute regarding the use of biometric data for commercial purposes, is seeking a temporary injunction that would prevent the company from using the information of current and past Illinois residents for its facial recognition software.
Clearview’s shift away from private businesses comes after months of mounting legal threats and scrutiny from lawmakers, activist groups, and news organizations. In February, a BuzzFeed News investigation found the company had provided its facial recognition tool to more than 2,200 police departments, government agencies, and companies across 27 countries. Despite public assurances from Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That that its software was meant for law enforcement, internal documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News showed numerous private companies had used the service including Macy’s, Walmart, Bank of America, and Target.
“Clearview is cancelling the accounts of every customer who was not either associated with law enforcement or some other federal, state, or local government department, office, or agency,” the company said in a filing, which argued that a federal judge should not grant the injunction because it was taking voluntary steps to comply with the state law. “Clearview is also cancelling all accounts belonging to any entity based in Illinois.”
In January, plaintiff David Mutnick sued Clearview in the federal court in the Northern District of Illinois, alleging the company had violated his and other people’s privacy by scraping photos from sites and apps like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Venmo to train its facial recognition algorithm. The complaint alleged that Clearview violated various constitutional amendments as well as the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), an 11-year-old law that prohibits the collection and storage of biometric data on residents without providing them notice and obtaining informed, written consent.
Illinois citizens have used BIPA as a cudgel against technology firms’ aggressive expansion into the use of facial and other biometric data. Earlier this year, Facebook agreed to pay $550 million to settle a class action lawsuit brought under the Illinois consumer privacy statute. According to data viewed by BuzzFeed News, more than 105 entities based in Illinois have used Clearview, including the Illinois secretary of state’s office, which had run nearly 9,000 facial scans, and the Chicago Police Department, which paid $49,875 for two-year Clearview logins for 30 people.
While the Chicago Police Department did not return a request for comment, a spokesperson for the Illinois secretary of state confirmed the office had been using Clearview “for about six months” to “assist other law enforcement agencies.” It declined to comment on the lawsuits against the company.
“Clearview AI continues to pursue its core mission: to assist law enforcement agencies around the nation in identifying perpetrators and victims of crime, including horrific crimes such as trafficking and child abuse,” Lee Wolosky, an attorney for Clearview AI, said in an email. “It is committed to abiding by all laws applicable to it.”
With its voluntary changes, Clearview is hoping to stave off a possible injunction against its business. Its actions, however, are less than satisfactory, said Scott Drury, an attorney with Loevy & Loevy, a firm representing Mutnick. (Loevy & Loevy works with BuzzFeed News on litigation matters concerning freedom of information laws.)
“The Defendants’ claimed actions do not provide the relief requested in the preliminary injunction motion and leave Illinois residents exposed to continued privacy harms,” Drury said in a statement.
In media appearances, Clearview has characterized itself as a disciplined government contractor, with Ton-That telling Fox Business in February that it is “strictly for law enforcement.” BuzzFeed News investigations earlier this year found the company had provided free trials to friends, potential political allies, and hundreds of private companies, some of which became paying customers.
One of those was Macy’s, which terminated its contract with the company back in January, according to a spokesperson. Several other private entities have paid to use Clearview, including law firms like the Bruning Law Group and banks, including Frontwave Credit Union and the Navy Federal Credit Union, according to data seen by BuzzFeed News.
The Zellman Group, a New York–based loss prevention consultancy firm, was a paying customer until recently. A spokesperson for Zellman told BuzzFeed News on Thursday that Clearview had canceled its contract earlier this year and refunded its money. Data viewed by BuzzFeed News showed that Zellman had run more than 1,700 searches with the tool.
Private entities have historically been among Clearview’s most active users, running hundreds to thousands of searches. Security firm Gavin de Becker and Associates, known for providing “threat assessment” services for celebrities and billionaire clients like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, ran more than 3,600 searches on Clearview. Bank of America employees ran more than 1,900 searches, according to data reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
In Illinois, most of the more than 105 entities that used Clearview were local police departments. The two departments with the most searches, according to company data reviewed by BuzzFeed News, were the Macon County Sheriff’s Office, which had run nearly 2,000 searches as of late February, and the Naperville Police Department, which had scanned nearly 1,700 photos. Spokespeople for the Macon County sheriff and the Naperville Police Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Chicago Cubs, a Major League Baseball team that had run 15 searches — some as recently as April 2019, based on data seen by BuzzFeed News — also did not respond to a request for comment.
Several federal agencies’ field offices in the state, including the Chicago offices of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, also used Clearview, according to data seen by BuzzFeed News. It’s unclear if those offices will be prevented from using it further under the company’s new self-imposed restrictions.
Beyond pledging to end all accounts and relationships with nongovernment customers and Illinois-based entities, Clearview said in a Wednesday legal filing that it had developed a way to prevent its database from ingesting photos with metadata associated with the state. (A photo taken with a digital device can often include metadata, such as the time and location it was taken.)
It’s unclear, however, how Clearview’s plan would work given that social media websites like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter — major sources for Clearview’s photo repository — typically strip metadata from photos once they’re posted. Many of those companies have already sent Clearview cease-and-desist letters demanding that it stop scraping their sites.
Clearview also said it would not collect photos or biometric data from servers displaying Illinois-based IP addresses or website with URLs containing keywords such as “Chicago” or “Illinois.” In addition, the startup said it was implementing an “opt-out mechanism” to allow people to exclude photos from its database.
Although Clearview is reckoning with the impacts of this recent litigation, it is still trying to expand into new markets. The company has told NBC News that it has talked with state and federal police about using its facial recognition to assist in digital contact tracing — the use of technology to track where a person diagnosed with COVID-19 has traveled and whom they may have infected. When pressed on the matter, Ton-That has declined to say what agencies or entities he had talked to about contact tracing.
Critics said Clearview, which is facing multiple lawsuits seeking class action status in Illinois, New York, and California, still isn’t doing enough.
“These promises do little to address concerns about Clearview’s reckless and dangerous business model,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. “There is no guarantee these steps will actually protect Illinois residents. And, even if there were, making promises about one state does nothing to end Clearview’s abusive exploitation of people’s faceprints across the country.”