The controversial American company Clearview AI for facial recognition software has been fined millions by a British authority for illegal practices.

The New York start-up has to pay a fine of 7.5 million pounds (9 million euros), the British data protection authority Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has ruled.

The reason is the violation of the privacy of users of social networks.

Philip Pickert

Business correspondent based in London.

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According to the ICO, Clearview AI illegally grabbed up to 20 billion photos of faces from the Internet and used them for a database for face recognition software with artificial intelligence.

The Data Protection Authority ordered Clearview AI to stop collecting and using images of UK citizens immediately.

The existing data would have to be deleted.

"Even though Clearview AI no longer offers its services to British organisations, the company has customers in other countries and therefore the company still uses the personal data of British people," the data protection authority complained.

The fine is the next setback for Clearview, after it was sentenced to a fine of 20 million euros in Italy for data protection violations in March.

The out-of-court settlement reached in early May after a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for violating a data protection law in Illinois is even more serious.

"Illegal Database"

Accordingly, Clearview AI will no longer be allowed to sell its facial recognition software to private companies and private individuals in the USA.

Also, Illinois must advertise an opt-out option with online viewing, allowing citizens to delete their images.

Clearview's attorney said the out-of-court settlement "doesn't change anything about the company's current business model."

Founded in 2017, the New York-based start-up has developed a facial recognition app that draws on a huge database.

Customers can upload photographs, the app then tries to identify the person.

Numerous police organizations and companies in the USA and some other countries use the computer program.

John Edwards, Britain's data protection chief, said the company allows people to be identified through its illegal database and even allows their behavior to be monitored.

"This is unacceptable."

"Success Stories" for Crime Fighting 

The company, run by co-founder Hoan Ton-That, has published a number of crime investigation "success stories" thanks to its software on its website.

For example, US law enforcement agencies managed to arrest a man who sexually abused children in Las Vegas.

In Miami, a gas station robbery-murderer was recently identified based on images from a surveillance camera.

Clearview recently announced that it would make its technology available to the Ukrainian army.

They want to use it to identify killed Russian soldiers in order to be able to inform families, but also hope to be able to identify suspects at checkpoints.

According to Clearview, it has collated its database of billions of facial identification images from "publicly available sources, including the media, mugshot pages, public social media and other open sources" -- but without ever obtaining the consent of the subjects.

The goal is a database with 100 billion images.