Class-action lawsuit filed against controversial Clearview AI startup

Plaintiffs claim New York startup broke Illinois privacy laws regarding the use of residents' biometrics data.

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Image: Microsoft

A lawsuit -- seeking class-action status -- was filed this week in Illinois against Clearview AI, a New York-based startup that has scraped social media networks for people's photos and created one of the biggest facial recognition databases in the world.

The secretive startup was exposed last week in an explosive New York Times report which revealed how Clearview was selling access to "faceprints" and facial recognition software to law enforcement agencies across the US. The startup claimed it could identify a person based on a single photo, revealing their real name, general location, and other identifiers.

The report sparked outrage among US citizens, who had photos collected and added to the Clearview AI database without their consent. The Times reported that the company collected more than three billion photos, from sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Venmo, and others.

This week, the company was hit with the first lawsuit in the aftermath of the New York Times exposé.

Lawsuit claims Clearview AI broke BIPA

According to a copy of the complaint obtained by ZDNet, plaintiffs claim Clearview AI broke Illinois privacy laws.

Namely, the New York startup broke the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), a law that safeguards state residents from having their biometrics data used without consent.

According to BIPA, companies must obtain explicit consent from Illinois residents before collecting or using any of their biometric information -- such as the facial scans Clearview collected from people's social media photos.

"Plaintiff and the Illinois Class retain a significant interest in ensuring that their biometric identifiers and information, which remain in Defendant Clearview's possession, are protected from hacks and further unlawful sales and use," the lawsuit reads.

"Plaintiff therefore seeks to remedy the harms Clearview and the individually-named defendants have already caused, to prevent further damage, and to eliminate the risks to citizens in Illinois and throughout the United States created by Clearview's business misuse of millions of citizen's biometric identifiers and information."

The plaintiffs are asking the court for an injunction against Clearview to stop it from selling the biometric data of Illinois residents, a court order forcing the company to delete any Illinois residents' data, and punitive damage, to be decided by the court at a later date.

"Defendants' violation of BIPA was intentional or reckless or, pleaded in the alternative, negligent," the complaint reads.

Clearview AI did not return a request for comment.

Earlier this week, US lawmakers also sought answers from the company, while Twitter sent a cease-and-desist letter demanding the startup stop collecting user photos from their site and delete any existing images.