Kashmir Hill, a technology reporter for The New York Times, is hosting the On Tech newsletter today to share what she learned after a year of reporting on facial recognition company Clearview AI. You can register here to receive On Tech on weekdays.
Clearview AI has done something no other company has done yet – and it’s testing legal and ethical boundaries in doing so.
The New York-based startup has collected billions of photos available online to create an app that searches people’s faces to help identify who they are. The company stayed out of the public eye for more than two years, before I wrote about its work in January 2020. The backlash was huge, and it looks like Clearview will be sued, legislated or ashamed of its existence. But not only was the company unsuccessful, a growing number of law enforcement clients flocked to its technology.
During the last year, I reported on Clearview and how it copes with these challenges for a story for The New York Times. Here are the five disclosures from my report:
A troll plays an important role
BuzzFeed and HuffPost previously reported that the Clearview founder, a technologist named Hoan Ton-That, and his company had ties to the extremist right wing and with a notorious conservative provocator named Charles Johnson, who runs several short-term investigative news sites, seems designed to troll liberals. Johnson was banned on Twitter in 2015 and has virtually disappeared from the public eye in the last few years.
According to Johnson, one of the projects he was working on during that time was Clearview. He identifies himself as a co-founder of the company. Clearview disputes that.
Johnson met Ton-That in 2016. They attended the Republican National Committee Conference in Cleveland that summer, where Johnson introduced Ton-That to billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel, who later provided the seed money to the company that became Clearview.
Two days after the conference, Johnson also connected Ton-That with a media consultant named Richard Schwartz. In 2017, the three of them formed a company in New York called Smartcheckr LLC. The following year, Johnson’s stake in Smartcheckr was converted to a 10% stake in Clearview, under a contract he provided me with.
New customers and new capital
As of January 2020, Clearview was used by at least 600 law enforcement agencies. The company says the figure has now risen to 3,100. The Army and Air Force are customers. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, signed a $ 224,000 agreement to use Clearview technology in August. “Our growth rates are crazy,” Ton-That said.
Clearview sold $ 8.6 million of shares in August, according to a financial disclosure. The company raised a total of $ 17 million from investors and was valued at close to $ 109 million, according to startup data provider PitchBook.
It has ‘revolutionized’ the investigation of child sexual abuse
Homeland Security investigators affiliated with ICE first started using Clearview in mid-2019 to tackle crimes related to the sexual exploitation of children.
In one instance, employees had photos of a young girl being abused that Yahoo found on a foreign user’s account. The abuser’s face is visible in the photos, but ICE doesn’t know who he is. Investigators ran the photos through Clearview and he appeared in the background of an Instagram photo from an event. The clue eventually led investigators to identify the man and rescue the 7-year-old child he abused.
“It has revolutionized how we can identify and rescue children,” an ICE official said. “It’s just getting better and better, the more images that Clearview can handle.”
A legal argument invoking the First Amendment
There are no federal laws in the United States that regulate facial recognition technology. The biggest legal hurdle for a company is the Illinois Biometric Information Security Act, a state law since 2008 that requires private organizations to get consent from individuals. to use their biometrics – a fancy term for measurements taken on the human body – or incur a fine of up to $ 5,000 per use. Clearview AI faces 11 lawsuits in Illinois, including one filed by the American Civil Liberties Coalition.
Clearview hired Floyd Abrams, a veteran attorney for the First Amendment, to help protect it. Abrams says that because Clearview’s database contains photos available on the internet, the company is protected by the US Constitution.
“We’re saying where the information has been given out, already public,” Abrams said, “that the First Amendment provides great protection.”
The ACLU is not against Clearview’s cropping of photos, but it does say that making a face out of them is “behavior” rather than words – and is therefore not constitutionally protected.
Now that the taboo has been broken, imitators will obey
Clearview has said that it has no plans to allow the public to use its app, but a clone company could.
Facebook has said it can bring facial recognition technology into its augmented reality glasses.
And in the last year, a mysterious new website called PimEyes appeared with a face search feature. It works surprisingly well.
Before we go …
I’m pretty sure this dog can’t drive a scooter but Maximilian looks splendid at the wheel.
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