Clearview AI told to stop processing UK data as ICO warns of possible fine

Controversial facial recognition company Clearview AI is facing a potential fine in the UK.

It has also been handed a provisional notice to stop further processing of UK citizens’ data and to delete any data it already holds as a result of what the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) described as “alleged serious breaches” of national data protection law.

The ICO has been looking into the tech company — which sells AI-powered identity matching to law enforcement and other paying customers via a facial recognition platform that it trained covertly on photos harvested from Internet sources (like social media platforms) — in a joint investigation with the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC).

The OAIC already, earlier this month, issued an order to Clearview to delete data after finding it broke national laws down under. So the ICO has been the laggard of the two regulators.

But today it issued the notification of a provisional intention to fine Clearview over £17 million (~$22.6M) — citing a range of suspected breaches.

Among the raft of violations the ICO suspects — following what it describes as “preliminary enquiries with Clearview AI” — are failures to process people’s information fairly or in a way they expect, in line with requirements to have a valid legal basis for processing personal data and to provide adequate information to those whose data is processed; along with a failure to have a process in place to prevent data being retained indefinitely; a failure to meet higher standards required for processing biometric data — which is considered special category data under the European standard (the GDPR) that’s transposed into UK law; and also for applying problematic processes when people object to its processing of their information — such as asking for more personal data (“including photographs”) in response to such objections.

Clearview was contacted for comment on the ICO’s provisional findings.

A spokesperson sent this statement (below), attributed to its London based attorney, Kelly Hagedorn (a partner at Jenner & Block London LLP) — who describes the ICO’s provisional finding as “factually and legally incorrect”; says Clearview is considering an appeal and “further action”; and claims the company does not do business in the UK (nor have any UK customers currently).

Here’s Clearview’s statement in full:

“The UK ICO Commissioner’s assertions are factually and legally incorrect. The company is considering an appeal and further action. Clearview AI provides publicly available information from the internet to law enforcement agencies. To be clear, Clearview AI does not do business in the UK, and does not have any UK customers at this time.”
Whether the ICO’s preliminary sanction will go the distance and turn into an actual fine and data processing cessation order against Clearview remains to be seen.

For one thing, the ICO’s notification is timed a few weeks ahead of the departure of sitting commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, who is set to be replaced by New Zealand’s privacy commissioner John Edwards in January.

So a new broom will be in charge of deciding whether the provisional findings hold up in the face of Clearview’s objections (and potential legal action).

In its statement today, the ICO is careful to note that Clearview will have the opportunity to make representations — which it says it will consider before any final decision is reached, and which it furthermore suggests may not happen until mid-2022.

Under Denham, it’s also notable that the ICO has substantially shrunk a number of provisional penalties it handed out in relation to other breach investigations (such as those to British Airways; and Marriott).

The ICO also settled with Facebook over the Cambridge Analytica scandal after the tech giant appealed its provisional sanction.

And while Facebook agreed to pay the ICO’s £500k fine in full in that case it did so without admitting any liability and also got the ICO to agree to sign a non-disclosure agreement over the arrangement (which has limited what the commissioner can say in public about its correspondence with Facebook). So, in all, that ended up looking like a sweet deal for Facebook — agreed to by a regulator apparently concerned at being challenged in the courts over its decision-making processes.

There is fresh complexity on the horizon around enforcement of the UK’s data protection regime too, now — in that the government is in the process of consulting on making changes to national law that could see ministers reduce protections wrapping people’s data — such as by removing or altering requirements around transparency, fairness and what constitutes a valid legal basis for processing people’s data — as part of a claimed ‘simplification‘ of the current laws.

So the ICO’s caveat on its provisional “view to fine” Clearview — which it specifies may be “subject to change or no further formal action” — looks like more than just a reminder to recall its own recent history of enforcements not standing up to its earlier convictions.

Why is it acting at all now if there’s a risk of ministers moving the goalposts? Denham may have an eye on amplifying her legacy as she departs for pastures new. Or she may hope to try and bind the hands of her successor — and limit the reformist zeal of DCMS to downgrade UK data protection — or, indeed, a little of all of the above.

In a statement, the outgoing commissioner said: “I have significant concerns that personal data was processed in a way that nobody in the UK will have expected. It is therefore only right that the ICO alerts people to the scale of this potential breach and the proposed action we’re taking. UK data protection legislation does not stop the effective use of technology to fight crime but to enjoy public trust and confidence in their products technology providers must ensure people’s legal protections are respected and complied with.”

“Clearview AI Inc’s services are no longer being offered in the UK. However, the evidence we’ve gathered and analysed suggests Clearview AI Inc were and may be continuing to process significant volumes of UK people’s information without their knowledge. We therefore want to assure the UK public that we are considering these alleged breaches and taking them very seriously,” she added.

On the investigation findings itself, the regulator’s press release on its provisional view and potential fine offers only tentative conclusions, with the ICO writing that: “The images in Clearview AI Inc’s database are likely to include the data of a substantial number of people from the UK and may have been gathered without people’s knowledge from publicly available information online, including social media platforms.”

It adds that it “understands that the service provided by Clearview AI Inc was used on a free trial basis by a number of UK law enforcement agencies”, and further specifying that this trial “was discontinued and Clearview AI Inc’s services are no longer being offered in the UK” — without offering any details on when the tech was being used and when usage stopped.

Clearview has faced regulatory pushback elsewhere around the world too.

Earlier this year Canada’s privacy watchdog concluded its own investigation of the AI firm — finding multiple breaches of national law and also ordering it to cease processing citizens’ data.

Clearview rejected the findings — but also said it no longer offered the service to Canadian law enforcement.

Update: The company has now sent an additional statement on the ICO’s provisional findings, attributed to CEO Hoan Ton-That, in which he expresses “deep” disappointment at what he claims is a misinterpretation of the technology — and goes on to imply that Clearview AI might have been useful for UK law enforcement investigations into child sexual abuse (an area where the UK government is currently spending taxpayer money to try to encourage the development of novel detection technologies).

Here’s Ton-That’s statement [emphasis his]:

“I grew up in Australia and have long viewed the UK as an important, majestic place—one about which I have the deepest respect.  I am deeply disappointed that the UK Information Commissioner  has misinterpreted my technology and intentions. I created the consequential facial recognition technology known the world over.  My company and I have acted in the best interests of the UK and their people by assisting law enforcement in solving heinous crimes against children, seniors, and other victims of unscrupulous acts. It breaks my heart that Clearview AI has been unable to assist when receiving urgent requests from UK law enforcement agencies seeking to use this technology to investigate cases of severe sexual abuse of children in the UK. We collect only public data from the open internet and comply with all standards of privacy and law.  I am disheartened by the misinterpretation of Clearview AI’s technology to society.  I would welcome the opportunity to engage in conversation with leaders and lawmakers so the true value of this technology which has proven so essential to law enforcement can continue to make communities safe.”

AWS launches new robotics programs

To kick of re:Invent, AWS’s flagship conference, the cloud computing giant today announced IoT RoboRunner, a new service for building applications that help large fleets of robots work together. This new service aims to provide the infrastructure necessary to build the work and fleet management applications necessary to run the kind of robot fleets that Amazon itself utilizes in its warehouses, for example.

The company also today announced a new robotics accelerator program.

At its core, RoboRunner helps developers build applications that integrate with robots from different manufacturers and manage the lifecycle of these applications. Currently, AWS argues, it’s too difficult to integrate robots from different vendors into a single system, leaving enterprises with a number of silos where they manage their robots, which in turn makes it hard to build applications where these heterogeneous fleets cooperate.

Image Credits: AWS

RoboRunner provides developers with a centralized data repository for their entire fleet, as well as a registry for modeling all of the destinations in a given facility and a registry for keeping track of all of the tasks performed by these robots.

The target customer for this service is large industrial enterprises that operate fleets of automated guided vehicles, mobile robots and robotic arms.

In addition to RoboRunner, AWS also announced a new robotics startup accelerator, the AWS Robotics Startup Accelerator, in collaboration with MassRobotics.

“Today, there are only a few successful commercial robotics companies, and there are a few big reasons for this,” AWS CTO Werner Vogels writes in today’s announcement. “First, finding a fit in the robotics product market is difficult because real-world environments are dynamic and unpredictable, so pairing the right niche with the right capabilities can be a challenge. Second, building robots with a high degree of autonomy and intelligence requires multidisciplinary skills that are hard to find and recruit for. Third, robotics is capital intensive and requires large up-front investment in sensors, actuators, and mechanical hardware even when they’re already commercially available.”

The new program is open to early-stage startups (less than $10 million in revenue and $100 million raised. The selected companies will get access to specialized training and mentorship from robotics experts and up to $10,000 in AWS credits.  

Foundry Lab raises $8M to quickly, cheaply create metal castings using a microwave

Remember Easy Bake Ovens? You’d mix up some colored powder and water until a dough or batter formed, put it in a mold, pop it in the oven, and before you knew it — ding! A disgusting treat. Foundry Lab, a New-Zealand based startup with backing from Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck, has figured out how to do something similar, except instead of chemicals and an “oven,” it’s metals and a microwave.

The company, which emerged from stealth on Monday with an $8 million Series A raise, is using “literally a microwave, but on steroids” to cast metal parts much quicker than metal 3D printing, according to David Moodie, founder and CEO of Foundry.

“It’s super easy for the user; they literally take the mold, throw in the cold metal powder or metal ingots, put it in the microwave, press the button and walk away,” Moodie told TechCrunch. “It even dings when it’s done. As easy as heating up a microwave dinner.”

(Foundry’s microwave has also been used to cook a typical New Zealand meat pie. It took only a few seconds and didn’t taste fantastic, according to Moodie.)

Typical casting systems like investment casting, 3D printing and die-casting take anywhere from one to six weeks to produce. Foundry says it has been able to turn around brake shoes for cars in under eight hours using molds that had been 3D printed using computer-aided design (CAD) molds and a giant microwave. The startup is currently working with zinc and aluminum, but has done some successful stainless steel trials and wants to move onto other metals like copper and brass in the future.

While Foundry’s tech has future applications in manufacturing industries where metal 3D printing can’t reach, the near-term goal is to help car manufacturing R&D teams develop production-identical, functional metal parts that can be used for testing and prototyping before committing to mass production.

“One of the companies we’re talking to is making up to 600 prototype cars before one reaches the market, so they’ll keep changing and keep iterating on it, and that can get expensive really quickly,” Moodie said, adding that tooling costs could be upwards of $50,000 to $100,000.

Moodie says before starting Foundry, he ran an industrial design consultancy business, designing products for mass manufacture. He felt frustrated that authorities would consistently reject patent applications because they were made with parts produced by 3D printers or CNC machines, and therefore, potentially made with the wrong physical structures.

“So I did the Kiwi thing and went to the shed and lucked my way into a system that worked,” he said, noting that much of his experimenting was done using standard microwaves during New Zealand’s latest lockdown, during which time Moodie couldn’t get into his workshop. “What we’re trying to solve is actual castings, trying to simulate a die casting but doing it fast and cheaply. If you machine to a tool to do a die casting, it’s typically three to six months to get that back.”

It’s still early days for Foundry. The company only has a couple of its very large microwaves out for trial with potential customers at the moment, but it will use the Series A funding, which came from Australian VC Blackbird, to get production-ready by the end of 2023.

Part of the funding will go toward hiring more staff. The company has grown quickly over the past few months, up from six staffers when it first started fundraising to 17 full-time employees now. The goal is to make it to around 35 over the coming months, a task that’s been difficult with New Zealand’s strict pandemic-related border closures.

“The whole border close thing is starting to hit us now,” said Moodie. “The country’s got two microwave experts, and they both have jobs. That’s been particularly difficult. So we’re trying to get someone to come across and help us.”

New Zealand is beginning to open up internally, with Auckland coming out of lockdown this week and the city borders opening up to the rest of the country in mid-December. Unless the new omicron variant holds things up, the country is expected to start inviting vaccinated travelers back starting April 30, 2022, giving Foundry and other New Zealand startups the chance to hire talent from abroad.

Even though Foundry is working out of New Zealand, it’s targeting markets in the United States and Europe. The company’s long game is to continue to work on the microwaves and get them to a point where they can produce the quantities needed for mass production.

Quick-commerce startup YallaMarket eyes Saudi Arabia and Qatar next year after U.A.E expansion

YallaMarket, a Dubai-based quick-commerce startup, is planning to expand within the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E), and to enter Saudi Arabia and Qatar next year, to tap the appetite for speedy and convenient grocery shopping.

The startup, which was formally launched last month, is expanding in the U.A.E cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai by setting up an additional 100 dark stores to offer 15-minute delivery services. Dark stores are order fulfillment centers for online retail outlets. These stores are inaccessible to customers but serve the important role of rapid order fulfillment. YallaMarket has two dark stores that are currently operational with plans to open two more in the next two weeks.

The instant delivery service will use the $2.3 million it has raised in the pre-seed round to fund expansion within the U.A.E. The round was co-led by Dubai Angel Investors and Wamda Capital, with the participation of a number of angel investors that focus on the Middle-East and North Africa (MENA). YallaMarket is planning to launch the production of ready-to-eat meals that will be available to order via the app, in the near future too.

The startup was founded by Dubai-based Russian entrepreneurs Leonid Dovbenko and Stanislav Seleznev, also founders of restaurant automatization services DocsinBox and Tawreed.

“We plan to use the majority of newly secured funding to boost our growth. The MENA region is actively developing…Our goal is to cover as much territory by on-demand fast delivery as possible,” said co-founder Dovbenko, who is also CEO of iiko Middle East, a cloud-based POS for restaurants.

The startup’s dark stores are located in residential areas that make it possible for delivery persons to collect orders within three minutes after purchase, and to deliver to several households on each trip. The company has its own delivery unit that uses e-scooters and bicycles. The average order of everyday goods bought through YallaMarket is $15 (55AED), with fruits, dairy and drinks leading in popularity.

YallaMarket makes a profit on each item it sells as it sources its inventory directly from brands or through large distributors.

“We see that the level of development of the e-grocery in the UAE is far from Russia, where express delivery services have achieved incredible success. Over the past few years, it has become clear that the dark-store model is supposed to replace classic convenience stores,” said Dovbenko.

As it gains more data on user habits, YallaMarket is now investing in product development by implementing a “behavior prediction system” to customize user experiences and offers based on their preferences to reduce the time spent when making orders.

The concept of the instant delivery business model (quick commerce) grew exponentially last year as the pandemic fueled the adoption of online grocery shopping according to a Coresight Research report. The report says that “permanent gains” are expected as consumers continue shopping online even after the pandemic.

Fast and reliable delivery and availability continue to be some of the most important factors when shopping online, as noted by a majority of consumers surveyed in a recent PwC study. The study expects online shopping to continue to gain ground as people continue to work from home, and as they adopt new habits like shopping online. The report ranked grocery spending as the category which consumers expect their spending to increase followed by takeaway food.

Panasonic confirms data breach after hackers access internal network

Japanese tech giant Panasonic has confirmed a data breach after hackers gained access to its internal network.

Panasonic said in a press release dated November 26 that its network was “illegally accessed by a third party” on November 11 and that “some data on a file server had been accessed during the intrusion.” However, when reached, Panasonic spokesperson Dannea DeLisser confirmed that the breach began on June 22 and ended on November 3 — and that the unauthorized access was first detected on November 11.

The Osaka, Japan-based company provided few other details of the breach. In its press release, the company said that in addition to conducting its own investigation, it’s “currently working with a specialist third-party organization to investigate the leak and determine if the breach involved customers’ personal information and/or sensitive information related to social infrastructure.”

“After detecting the unauthorized access, the company immediately reported the incident to the relevant authorities and implemented security countermeasures, including steps to prevent external access to the network,” it added. “Panasonic would like to express its sincerest apologies for any concern or inconvenience resulting from this incident.”

News of this data breach comes less than a year after Panasonic India was hit with a ransomware attack that saw hackers leak 4 gigabytes of data, including financial information and email addresses. It also comes amid a wave of cyberattacks targeting Japanese technology companies. NEC and Mitsubishi Electric both fell victim to hackers last year, and Olympus was recently forced to suspend its European, Middle East and Africa operations after being hit by BlackMatter ransomware.

Updated with comment from Panasonic.

Happy Cyber Monday: Score 2-for-1 passes to TC Sessions Space 2021

Kicking yourself for missing out on our Black Friday sale? Welcome to our no-regrets 2-for-1 Cyber Monday deal on passes to TC Sessions: Space 2021. Buy your pass before this sale expires on November 29 at 11:59 pm (PT), and you’ll score a second pass free.

Pro Tip: Use that free pass to bring another space traveler and double down on the abundant opportunities just waiting to be discovered.

Take advantage of prime networking with the global space community. Attendees span the space spectrum. Meet investors, founders, engineers, policymakers, academics and researchers — the established and the up-and-coming alike.

Don’t miss out on meeting the founders of some of the early-stage space startups exhibiting in our virtual expo:

  • Groundcom develops, builds and operates a network of ground stations around the world that are available as a service.
  • Skycorp is a leading founder in the realm of on-orbit assembly and servicing with commercial and government customers.
  • NewRocket develops advanced, environmentally friendly (“Green Propulsion”) rocket engines based on innovative gel-propellant technology.
  • Homeport builds infrastructures for a new era that address the increasing usage of spacecraft and data from them.
  • Pixxel is building a health monitor for the planet by producing, assembling, and launching the world’s highest-resolution constellation of hyperspectral earth-imaging satellites.
  • SCOUT is developing dual-use, space-based services to make space more transparent and enhance space domain awareness.
  • Orbion Space Technology produces Hall-effect electric propulsion solutions for small satellites ranging from 70 kg to 500 kg.
  • Aphelion Aerospace delivers green, low-cost, on-demand design-build-launch services for nanosatellite operations.
  • CesiumAstro provides out-of-the-box communication systems for satellites, UAVs, launch vehicles and other space or airborne platforms.
  • SpaceRyde launches small satellites on its own affordable taxi to space — without ridesharing.

And of course, we’ll have some of the most experienced space leaders in this or any other galaxy ready to share their insights with you. Here’s a quick sample — explore the event agenda for more exciting presentations and breakouts.

Bringing NASA to the Moon and Back — Kathy Leuders is the head of the new Space Operations Mission Directorate, responsible for activities in orbit and soon, well beyond that. How will she and NASA meet the unprecedented challenge of establishing a lasting human presence on the Moon?

Maneuvering Towards Better In-space Propulsion — What goes up must come down, but we can delay that second part a bit with better propulsion on our satellites and spacecraft. Natalya Bailey (Accion Systems), Beau Jarvis (Phase Four) and Istvan Lorincz (Morpheus Space) are pushing the boundaries of in-space propulsion and will discuss the challenges and opportunities in changing how in-space assets move about.

The Full Service Space Company — Rocket Lab’s 2021 saw it enter the public markets, announce brand new spacecraft, acquire companies and more. We’ll talk to Founder and CEO, Peter Beck about what the one-time dedicated launch company is turning into through all this growth and change.

TC Sessions: Space 2021 takes place on December 14-15. Celebrate Cyber Monday and buy your 2-for-1 pass before November 29 at 11:59 pm (PT).

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Space 2021? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Final call for Sight Tech Global Dec. 1-2

The second annual Sight Tech Global happens this week, on December 1-2, and this free, virtual event is incredibly packed with insights about how rapid advances in technology are fostering an accessibility revolution for people who are blind or have low vision. Register today.

All the sessions have been pre-recorded, and I can tell you first-hand that the panels and fireside chats are really remarkable, whether or not tech accessibility is your area. Join our host Will Butler, VP of Be My Eyes, for two incredibly thought-provoking mornings on Dec. 1-2 starting at 8 a.m. PT. Here’s the agenda and my quick take on the 10 sessions:

  • Apple: A top Apple researcher explains how the cascade of ML/ AI  features (image description, gesture control, scene description) fit together in a customizable accessibility “stack.”
  • Amazon Alexa: Alexa’s top AI thinker discusses how Amazon is becoming a more conversational and helpful assistant that talks less and does more.
  • Microsoft Seeing AI: The co-founder explains his vision for how to augment navigation for the blind with customizable audio AR.
  • Website accessibility 2.0: There is a little-known technical reason why website accessibility is a costly undertaking. That’s about to change.
  • Indoor Navigation: Four of the world’s top researchers discuss how new technologies like LiDAR are the foundation to solve this really difficult problem for blind mobility.
  • Autonomous Taxis: When will they go commercial and will they work well for the blind and visually impaired? A top AI researcher says not soon; Waymo begs to differ.
  • Inventors: Products designed to aid blind people have a way of going mainstream. Think OCR reading machines. These tree inventors are taking their shots.
  • Getting to accessible. When and how do product companies reach the finish line. Hear from Spotify and Peloton, which take that on. It’s not easy.
  • Blind Kindle: Multi-line Braille displays that can also render tactile graphics are the “Holy Braille” of information appliances. APH shows off its AI-powered prototype.
  • Google: 75% of mobile users are on Android, and Google’s Lookout app is essential for the blind Android users. The Lookout team is making the most of Google’s accessibility commitment and AI resources.

If you’re still hungry for more, there are seven, live breakout sessions that go into deeper detail on some of the topics on the main stage as well as new subjects.

  • Perkins Access: Using AI to remove digital barriers for math students
  • Fable: The future of screen readers: key ideas that will not serve us well
  • APH: The development of a new tactile display combining Braille and graphics in one experience
  • W3C ARIA-AT: Screen readers, interoperability, and a new era of web accessibility
  • HumanWare: The introduction of HumanWare’s new intelligent braille displays
  • WordPress.com: A brief look at the accessibility features built into WordPress.com
  • Vispero: The next generation of assistive technology user testing is here

Please join us at this free, virtual event on December 1 & 2,  starting at 8 a.m. Pacific. Register now.

Sight Tech Global is a production of the nonprofit Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which has been serving blind and low vision people in Silicon Valley for 75 years.

Sight Tech Global is free to attendees and made possible by a volunteer production team and sponsors Facebook, Salesforce, Google, WordPress, Mojo Vision, Ford, Fable, APH, Humanware, Microsoft, Vispero, Amazon, Yahoo and TechCrunch. All sponsorship revenues go to the nonprofit Vista Center, a 501 (c) (3) New sponsors are alway welcome.

Student media giant Chegg acquires language learning startup Busuu for $436M

Chegg, the NYSE listed student media learning platform is acquiring Busuu, the online language learning startup established in Europe in 2008, for approximately $436 million (€385 million) in an all-cash transaction.

At its exit Busuu had raised only $16.1m in total, a tiny amount even I in European terms, and testament to the sheer grit of the founders who, by the end, had built a business that had reached over 120 million learners to date across more than 160 countries. Busuu provides courses in 12 different languages to over 500,000 paying subscribers.

The company’s last funding round was May 27, 2020 for $2m from GP Bullhound and ultra-high net worths. Prior to that the previous investors had consisted of Harold Primat, McGraw-Hill Education, PROfounders Capital, Martin Varsavsky and Johann “Hansi” Hansmann (according to CrunchBase).

Dan Rosensweig, President and CEO of Chegg said: “The addition of Busuu gives Chegg the unique opportunity to expand our business while also adding tremendous value to our existing users. It will allow us to drive further into international markets, as well as accelerate Busuu’s growth in the US market. Busuu’s team, who we have known for many years, are a great cultural fit. They have built an incredible learning service for the serious language learner, and we are excited to have them as part of Chegg.”

Chegg says it expects Busuu’s full-year 2021 revenue to be approximately $45 million with year-over-year growth of greater than 20%. The $17 billion digital language market is expected to triple in size in the next five years, said a statement by Chegg.

Founded in 2008 by Bernhard Niesner and Adrian Hilti, with offices in London, UK, and Madrid, Spain, Busuu has made a point of finessing its language-learning model and iterating every aspect of the platform, to the point where a study by ann academic at the University of Maryland, showed that users of Busuu needed only 13 hours of study in a two-month period to move up one college semester (typically 90-105 hours of instruction). The company offers free and paid subscriptions on a monthly, annual, and bi-annual basis.

Busuu is used by individuals but also offers corporate language training. Last year it added live language tutoring after acquiring Verbling.

Bernhard Niesner, CEO & Co-founder of Busuu, said: “We are proud and excited to be joining the Chegg family, a world-leading edtech company that puts students first. This partnership will give us an opportunity to leverage Chegg’s tremendous reach to fuel our expansion, particularly in the US. Our vision is to empower everyone in the world through languages, and we believe our relationship with Chegg will enable us to achieve this goal even faster.”