This controversial startup that lets strangers invade your privacy with its facial-recognition app is becoming the first “search engine for faces”—and the FBI uses it
Last year, we wrote about Clearview AI, 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 is the world’s largest facial network. The startup sells access to its database of more than 10 billion photos 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.
Fast forward a few years later, Clearview is now on track to win the U.S. patent for its facial recognition technology, according to a report by Politico. Early this month, the startup received a green light on a federal patent for its facial recognition technology — an award that Clearview says is the first step to cover a so-called “search engine for faces” that crawls the internet to find matches.
On December 1, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office sent Clearview a “notice of allowance,” which means that the patent will be approved once the company pays certain administrative fees. Now the Clearview facial recognition technology already has members of Congress and privacy advocates up in arms. In an email, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said:
“Facial recognition technology is metastasizing throughout the federal government, and I am deeply concerned about this trend towards increased surveillance.”
Members of Congress are not the only people worried about Clearview technology. Privacy advocates are also expressing their concerns that Clearview poses a new and profound threat to everyone’s privacy.
However, Clearview CEO and co-founder Hoan Ton-That tried to downplay the concerns. In an exclusive interview with Politico, Ton-That said: “There are other facial recognition patents out there — that are methods of doing it — but this is the first one around the use of large-scale internet data.” Ton-That also emphasized that “as a person of mixed race, having non-biased technology is important to me.”
Last month, Clearview AI faced A $23 million fine over its facial recognition in the UK, according to a report from BuzzFeed. In November, the UK’s national privacy watchdog warned Clearview that the controversial facial recognition startup faced a potential fine of £17 million, or $23 million, for “alleged serious breaches” of the country’s data protection laws. The watchdog also demanded that Clearview delete the personal information of people in the UK.
Meanwhile, Clearview said its solutions enable US law enforcement and government agencies “to gain intelligence and disrupt crime by revealing leads, insights, and relationships to help investigators solve both simple and complex crimes, increase officer and public safety, and keep our communities and families safer.”
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.
Early this year, 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.
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, 32, 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 the video below, Clearview CEO speaks out about the company AI’s controversial facial recognition technology.