Last week a Tribunal overturned a GDPR Enforcement Notice and a Monetary Penalty Notice issued to Clearview AI, an American facial recognition company. In Clearview AI Inc v The Information Commissioner  UKFTT 00819 (GRC), the First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) ruled that the Information Commissioner had no jurisdiction to issue either notice, on the basis that the GDPR/UK GDPR did not apply to the personal data processing in issue.
Clearview is a US based company which describes itself as the “World’s Largest Facial Network”. Its online database contains 20 billion images of people’s faces and data scraped from publicly available information on the internet and social media platforms all over the world. It allows customers to upload an image of a person to its app; the person is then identified by the app checking against all the images in the Clearview database.
In May 2022 the ICO issued a Monetary Penalty Notice of £7,552,800 to Clearview for breaches of the GDPR including failing to use the information of people in the UK in a way that is fair and transparent. Although Clearview is a US company, the ICO ruled that the UK GDPR applied because of Article 3(2)(b) (territorial scope). It concluded that Clearview’s processing activities “are related to… the monitoring of [UK resident’s] behaviour as far as their behaviour takes place within the United Kingdom.”
The ICO also issued an Enforcement Notice ordering Clearview to stop obtaining and using the personal data of UK residents that is publicly available on the internet, and to delete the data of UK residents from its systems. (see our earlier blog for more detail on these notices.)
The First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) has now overturned the ICO’s enforcement and penalty notice against Clearview. It concluded that although Clearview did carry out data processing related to monitoring the behaviour of people in the UK (Article Art. 3(2)(b) of the UK GDPR), the ICO did not have jurisdiction to take enforcement action or issue a fine. Both the GDPR and UK GDPR provide that acts of foreign governments fall outside their scope; it is not for one government to seek to bind or control the activities of another sovereign state. However the Tribunal noted that the ICO could have taken action under the Law Enforcement Directive (Part 3 of the DPA 2018 in the UK), which specifically regulates the processing of personal data in relation to law enforcement.
While the Tribunal’s judgement in this case reflects the specific circumstances, some of its findings are of wider application:
- The term “behaviour” (in Article Art. 3(2)(b)) means something about what a person does (e.g., location, relationship status, occupation, use of social media, habits) rather than just identifying or describing them (e.g., name, date of birth, height, hair colour).
- The term “monitoring” not only comes up in Article 3(2)(b) but also in Article 35(3)(c) (when a DPIA is required). The Tribunal ruled that monitoring includes tracking a person at a fixed point in time as well as on a continuous or repeated basis.
- In this case, Clearview was not monitoring UK residents directly as its processing was limited to creating and maintaining a database of facial images and biometric vectors. However, Clearview’s clients were using its services for monitoring purposes and therefore Clearview’s processing “related to” monitoring under Article 3(2)(b).
- A provider of services like Clearview, may be considered a joint controller with its clients where both determine the purposes and means of processing. In this case, Clearview was a joint controller with its clients because it imposed restrictions on how clients could use the services (i.e., only for law enforcement and national security purposes) and determined the means of processing when matching query images against its facial recognition database.
The ruling is not a greenlight for data scraping; where publicly available data, usually from the internet, is collected and processed by companies often without the Data Subject’s knowledge. The Tribunal ruled that this was an activity to which the UK GDPR could apply. In its press release, reacting to the ruling, the ICO said:
“The ICO will take stock of today’s judgment and carefully consider next steps.
It is important to note that this judgment does not remove the ICO’s ability to act against companies based internationally who process data of people in the UK, particularly businesses scraping data of people in the UK, and instead covers a specific exemption around foreign law enforcement.”
This is a significant ruling from the First Tier Tribunal which has implications for the extra territorial effect of the UK GDPR and the ICO powers to enforce it. It merits an appeal by the ICO to the Upper Tribunal. Whether this happens depends very much on the ICO’s appetite for a legal battle with a tech company with deep pockets.