Facial recognition company trialled by law enforcement breached privacy: commissioner

By Jackson Graham

November 4, 2021

Angelene Falk
Australian information commissioner Angelene Falk. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

A facial recognition company that provided trials to law enforcement agencies has breached Australians’ privacy, Australian information commissioner Angelene Falk says.

US company Clearview AI offers a facial recognition tool from a database of three billion images taken from social media platforms and other publicly available websites.

The tool then allows users to upload a photo of an individual’s face to find other facial images of that person in the database, and links to where they appeared. 

Commissioner Falk, also Australia’s privacy commissioner, found the company breached the Australian Privacy Act by collecting sensitive information without consent, using unfair means, and not taking reasonable steps to notify individuals, among other failings. 

Clearview AI provided the tool in a trial to some Australian police forces between October 2019 and March 2020.

The commissioner’s office is investigating the Australian Federal Police’s use of the technology during the trial and whether it complied with the Australian Government Agencies Privacy Code. 

The commissioner, in a joint investigation with her UK counterpart, has ordered the company to stop collecting facial images and biometric information from people in Australia.

The determination also requires the company to destroy the images and information of Australian people it has. 

“When Australians use social media or professional networking sites, they don’t expect their facial images to be collected without their consent by a commercial entity to create biometric templates for completely unrelated identification purposes,” Falk said.

“The indiscriminate scraping of people’s facial images, only a fraction of whom would ever be connected with law enforcement investigations, may adversely impact the personal freedoms of all Australians who perceive themselves to be under surveillance.”

Clearview AI has argued that it had not obtained personal information and was not bound by Australian law because the company was US-based, but the commissioner is confident the company was required to follow Australian law. 

“Clearview AI’s activities in Australia involve the automated and repetitious collection of sensitive biometric information from Australians on a large scale, for profit. These transactions are fundamental to their commercial enterprise,” Falk said.

“It also raises questions about whether online platforms are doing enough to prevent and detect scraping of personal information.”


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