Kashmir Hill, a technology reporter for the New York Times, took up the On Tech newsletter today to share what she learned after a year of reporting on facial recognition company Clearview AI. You can sign up here to get On Tech on weekdays.
Clearview AI has done something no other company has ever done – testing legal and ethical boundaries in the process.
The New York-based startup amassed billions of photos available online to create an app that searches people’s faces to find out who they are. The company wasn’t publicly known for more than two years before I wrote about its work in January 2020. The backlash has been intense and it seemed possible that Clearview could be sued, legislated, or embarrassed. But not only did the company not implode, more law enforcement customers flocked to its technology.
Last year, I wrote a story for the New York Times Magazine about Clearview and how it dealt with these challenges. Here are five revelations from my reporting:
A troll played a crucial role
BuzzFeed and HuffPost previously reported that Clearview’s founder, a technologist named Hoan Ton-That, and his company had links to the far right and a notorious conservative provocateur named Charles Johnson, who ran some short-lived investigative news sites designed as trolls Liberal. Johnson was banned from Twitter in 2015 and has largely disappeared from the public eye in recent years.
According to Johnson, Clearview was one of the projects he was working on during this time. He sees himself as a co-founder of the company. Clearview denies this.
Johnson met Ton-That in 2016. That summer they attended the Cleveland Republican National Committee meeting, where Johnson introduced Ton-That to billionaire Peter Thiel, who later provided seed money for the company that became Clearview.
Two days after Congress, Johnson also connected Ton-That with a communications advisor named Richard Schwartz. In 2017 the three founded a New York company called Smartcheckr LLC. The next year, Johnson’s stake in Smartcheckr was transferred to a 10 percent stake in Clearview under a contract he had made available to me.
New customers and new financing
As of January 2020, Clearview was used by at least 600 law enforcement agencies. The company says that’s up to 3,100 now. The army and air force are customers. The US Immigration and Customs Service ICE signed a contract for $ 224,000 to use Clearview technology in August. “Our rate of growth is insane,” said Ton-That.
Clearview sold $ 8.6 million of shares in August, according to a financial disclosure. The company has raised a total of $ 17 million from investors and is valued at nearly $ 109 million, according to startup data provider PitchBook.
It “revolutionized” the study of child sexual abuse
ICE-affiliated Homeland Security investigators first used Clearview in mid-2019 to solve crimes related to child sexual exploitation.
In one case, agents had photos of a young girl who was abused and found by Yahoo in a foreign user’s account. The perpetrator’s face could be seen in the photos, but ICE didn’t know who he was. Investigators ran the photos through Clearview and he appeared in the background of an Instagram photo from an event. The clue eventually prompted investigators to identify the man and rescue the 7-year-old he had molested.
“It has revolutionized the way we identify and rescue children,” said an ICE official. “It only gets better the more images Clearview can scratch.”
A legal argument based on the first change
There are no federal laws in the United States that regulate facial recognition technology. The company’s biggest legal hurdle is the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, a 2008 state law that states that private companies must obtain consent from individuals to use their biometric information – a fancy word for human measurements Body fines or fines of up to two percent up to US $ 5,000 per use. Clearview AI is facing 11 lawsuits in Illinois, including one filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Clearview hired Floyd Abrams, a seasoned First Amendment attorney, to help with the defense. According to Abrams, the company is protected by the U.S. Constitution because Clearview’s database contains photos that are available on the Internet.
“We say that where information has already been made public,” Abrams said, “the first change is tremendous protection.”
The ACLU has no objection to Clearview’s scraping of photos, but says that making a facial imprint of them is “behavior” and not language – and therefore is not constitutionally protected.
Now that the taboo is broken, imitators will follow
Clearview has said it has no intention of letting the public use its app, but a copycat could.
Facebook has already announced that it will integrate facial recognition technology into its augmented reality glasses.
And last year a mysterious new site called PimEyes with a face search came up. It works surprisingly well.
Before we go …
I’m pretty sure this dog can’t drive a scooter, but Maximilian looks great behind the wheel.
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