Controversial facial recognition company Clearview AI banned from selling face database to private US businesses

Controversial facial recognition company Clearview AI banned from selling face database to private US businesses
CBS This Morning
  • Clearview AI is now banned from selling its facial recognition database to private US businesses, according to a court settlement.
  • The settlement, filed Monday, also bans sales of Clearview AI's software to all Illinois state agencies for five years.

The facial recognition company Clearview AI will no longer be allowed to sell its database of faces to US-based businesses and private entities, according to a settlement agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union that was filed in an Illinois court on Monday.

Per the terms of the settlement, Clearview AI — which maintains a database of more than 20 billion faces scraped from the internet, according to the company — is also restricted from selling its facial recognition software to any Illinois State agency, including law enforcement, for five years. The settlement does not restrict Clearview AI's contracts with federal agencies, or with contractors working on behalf of federal agencies, even within Illinois.

The company, which mostly markets to law enforcement, has given its software to more than 200 private entities in the past, according to reporting from BuzzFeed News. Employees from Walmart, Bank of America, Equinox, and other companies collectively ran thousands of facial recognition searches using Clearview AI. The billionaire CEO of grocery chain Gristedes reportedly had private access to Clearview AI's software and used it to spy on his daughter's dates.

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The suit against Clearview AI, which was filed by the ACLU and several other organizations in February 2020, argued that the company violated Illinois's Biometric Information Privacy Act, which protects Illinois residents from having their biometric information, which includes pictures of faces, from being sold without their consent.

"I hope other states see how effective this law can be and join Illinois soon in protecting state residents," Nathan Freed Wessler, a deputy director of the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, told Insider.


Lawyers representing Clearview AI said in statements to Insider that the settlement is a "huge win" for the company and requires no material changes to its business model. In a statement, CEO Hoan Ton-That said, "We would only sell to private entities in a manner that complies with BIPA."

Clearview AI recently rode a wave of positive publicity after it announced that Ukrainian soldiers were using its software to identify soldiers killed during Russia's invasion. Still, the settlement shows it still faces serious image and legal compliance issues domestically.

In the US, the company has had its fair share of scandals, including Ton-That's ties to the far-right and accusations it involuntarily scrapes people's pictures from the internet. Facebook, Google, Twitter, Venmo, and LinkedIn have all issued cease-and-desist orders against the company, demanding it stop harvesting their images. Clearview AI has also been criticized by other biometric companies for giving the surveillance industry a bad name.

The settlement does not restrict Clearview AI from selling to foreign-based companies, which the company has done in the past. For example, Clearview AI gave its software to the AI Center of Advanced Studies, a privately run research center based in Saudi Arabia, BuzzFeed News previously reported. The center's clients include Saudi Arabia's General Investment Authority.

The company has also offered free trials of its software to police departments in dozens of countries around the world. It once bragged about "rapid international expansion" to at least 22 countries, according to previous reporting from BuzzFeed News.


The terms of the settlement also ban Clearview AI from giving free trials to individual police officers or government employees who aren't acting "in their official capacity" as a public employee. Wessler told Insider that this language prevents police officers from getting free trials without the explicit knowledge and approval of a higher-up beforehand.

Clearview AI started requiring this approval in March 2020. Before then, Clearview AI gave free trials to thousands of individual police officers, who used the software without the knowledge of their departments, per reporting from BuzzFeed News.

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Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the limitations on Clearview AI's sales to private companies. The settlement primarily limits sales of the company's face database from private entities. It does not bar sales of all of Clearview AI's software.