Meet Clearview, the controversial AI facial recognition startup that scrapes billions of social media photos for use by law enforcement agencies
Late last year, we wrote about Clearview, a controversial facial recognition tech startup that uses AI to automatically scrape and collect publicly billions of photos of faces across social media and other websites to build out its biometric database. Clearview later sells access to the database using a proprietary search engine to law enforcement agencies and private companies.
Clearview app is so dangerous that even Google said it wouldn’t build it. Speaking at The All Things Digital Conference in 2011, former Google Chairman Eric Schmidt said Google decided not to implement facial recognition technology because of privacy concerns. He said he thought it’s something that can be used in a “very bad way as well as a very good way.”
In January 2020, The New York Times ran a story about Clearview titled: “The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It.” According to the report, more than 600 law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, are already using this facial recognition technology, despite bans on the technology in cities like San Francisco.
In September 2020, Clearview raised $8.6 million in a recent fundraising round, according to financial documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on Thursday. According to Clearview’s SEC filing, the startup raised $8.625 million in equity sales. The first sale occurred at the beginning of August. The funding disclosure comes amid a series of legal challenges to Clearview for its alleged violation of various states’ biometric information and data privacy laws.
Fast forward to 2021, Clearview was hit with legal complaints about its controversial face scraping in Europe after EU privacy watchdogs announced the company’s image-scraping methods violate European laws. Privacy International (PI) and several other European privacy and digital rights organizations filed legal complaints in France, Austria, Greece, Italy, and the United Kingdom saying that the images of faces the company automatically extracts from public websites — violate European privacy laws. But the privacy complaints did little to stop investors from pouring more money into the company.
Today, Clearview AI announced it has raised $30 million in Series B funding to accelerate growth. The investment, which now values the company at $130 million, came from undisclosed institutional investors and family offices.
Founded in 2017 by Hoan Ton-That, an Australian techie and onetime model, Clearview is a new research tool used by law enforcement agencies to identify perpetrators and victims of crimes. Clearview AI’s technology has helped law enforcement track down hundreds of at-large criminals, including pedophiles, terrorists, and sex traffickers. It is also used to help exonerate the innocent and identify the victims of crimes including child sex abuse and financial fraud. With Clearview AI, law enforcement is able to catch the most dangerous criminals, solve the toughest cold cases and make communities safer, especially the most vulnerable among us.
Ton-That, 31, grew up in Australia and moved to the U.S. at 19 years old. He worked in app development and as a part-time model before founding Clearview AI four years ago. “There’s a lot of crimes and cases that are being solved,” Ton-That told New York Times. “We really believe that this technology can make the world a lot safer.”
The report has already raised concerns among privacy advocacy groups: “If a picture of you exists somewhere online, and you participate in a protest or a rally, then it’s plausible law enforcement could upload a picture of you at the rally, run it through the Clearview system and easily find out who you are,” NY Times said.
On April 6, 2020, Buzzfeed News wrote a piece where the news outlet published a database of over 1,800 entities—including state and local police and other taxpayer-funded agencies such as healthcare systems and public schools—that it says have used Clearview’ controversial tool.
“Law enforcement agencies continue to evolve and adopt new technology by necessity, and Clearview’s revolutionary image search and identification capabilities have proven to be a game-changer in bringing unidentified criminals to justice,” said Hoan Ton-That, Co-Founder and CEO of Clearview AI.
Clearview’s proprietary image-search technology enables law enforcement to accurately, reliably and lawfully identify criminal suspects, as well as the victims upon whom they prey, by matching within seconds a single, unidentified photograph with publicly available, open-sourced images from the Internet. The technology is used for after-the-crime investigations by law enforcement.
In December 2019, Clearview secured $7 million in Series A funding from investment trusts, funds and individual investors. Prior investors include Peter Thiel and Naval Ravikant.