Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against the controversial face recognition company Clearview AI alleging its efforts to collect images of Vermonters without their consent to fuel a law enforcement database is in violation of multiple state laws.
“I am disturbed by this practice, particularly the practice of collecting and selling children’s facial recognition data,” Donovan said in a statement. “This practice is unscrupulous, unethical, and contrary to public policy. I will continue to fight for the privacy of Vermonters, particularly our most vulnerable.”
Clearview AI has faced intense scrutiny in past weeks from lawmakers and privacy advocates due to its practice of “scraping” images of Americans from dozens of websites, including Facebook and YouTube, without their permission and in apparent violation of those websites’ terms of service. The images feed a database that reportedly aids police in identifying individuals based only on a photograph. Use of the technology is wholly unregulated.
Amid the ongoing backlash, the New York Times reported last week that Clearview AI had allowed numerous, exorbitantly wealthy individuals to toy around with the database for fun, despite claiming publicly that its technology is “available only for law enforcement agencies and select security professionals to use as an investigative tool.”
The complaint filed by Donovan in the Chittenden Superior Court alleges that Clearview AI has committed multiple violations of the Vermont Consumer Protection Act and the state’s year-old data broker law, which requires businesses collecting and selling data about Vermonters to register with state authorities.
“No Vermont state or local law enforcement agencies have used the app. Clearview AI collects the facial recognition data of Vermont children, as well as adults, without their notice or consent,” Donovan’s office said.
The state has also filed a motion asking a judge to order Clearview AI to immediately halt the collection of information about Vermont residents. The legal efforts follow a cease-and-desist letter sent by the assistant attorney general, Ryan Kriger, on March 5.
Vermont Consumer Protection Act authorizes the state attorney general to conduct investigations and seek monetary relief—up to $10,000 per violation—on behalf of consumers. The cease-and-desist letter informed Clearview: “Each photograph downloaded or Vermonter impacted is a separate and distinct violation.”
Clearview AI’s CEO, Hoan Ton-That, has publicly asserted a First Amendment defense in response to criticism of his company’s data collection methods, arguing the company has every right to “public information.” The companies from which Clearview is collecting data do not agree. Several, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, have sent the company cease-and-desist letters and have threatened additional legal action.
Below is the full statement provided to Gizmodo by Clearview AI attorney Tor Ekeland:
Clearview AI is one of the most innovative, effective and accurate law-enforcement tools on the market. Not only does it protect victims by helping law enforcement apprehend child rapists, murderers, and thieves, its accuracy protects the innocent from being falsely accused — all by simply using public images available to everyone on the public Internet. If an image is marked private, it remains private. Clearview AI will not index it.
Clearview AI operates in a manner similar to search engines like Google and Bing. Clearview AI, however, collects far less data than Google and Bing, because Clearview AI only collects public images and their web address. That’s all. Google, Bing and Facebook collect far more data, including names, addresses, financial and health information and shopping habits.
Clearview AI operates in strict accordance with the U.S. Constitution and American law. We would welcome the opportunity to work collaboratively with the State of Vermont — outside the adversarial environment of a courtroom — to further refine our proven, crime-solving technology for the benefit of all. However, we are ready to defend our, and the public’s, Constitutional right to access freely available public information.