When the London Metropolitan Police Department announced its decision to adopt the controversial and intrusive ClearView AI surveillance system at the end of January, a worldwide cacophony of protest broke out. Concerns, fears and fears about face recognition technologies, especially those like Clearview that people can identify in real time, have been simmering for decades, but the decision of the Met has finally caused public outrage to spread. But how did we get to the point where a relatively unknown startup succeeded in defining one of the tent sticks of futuristic dystopia and starting marketing the upcoming dictatorial regimes, all while earning the anger of the national governments and technology industry titans alike?
Clearview AI was founded in 2017 by Richard Schwartz and now CEO Hoan Ton-That. The company includes Peter Thiel and AngelList founder Naval Ravikant among his investors. Clearview technology is actually very simple: The face recognition algorithm compares the image of a person's face from security cameras with an existing database of potential matches. The Clearview app is primarily sold to law enforcement agencies and allows users to take and upload a photo of a person and then view all public images of that person, as well as links to where those photos were published. In principle, local law enforcement can use that image to exploit your full online presence for information about you, effectively ending any appearance of personal privacy.
However, the technology itself is not a problem, it is the way the company acquired its 3 billion image database: Clearview scraped images from our collective social media profiles. Until the company was caught, it has reportedly picked up photos from Twitter, Facebook, Venmo and millions of other websites in recent years. Twitter recently sent a cease-fire letter to Clearview after the company's actions were revealed, claiming that the company's actions were in violation of Twitter's policies and demanding that Clearview immediately stop deleting of the images from his platform.
Google and YouTube made similar claims in their cease-fire letter. “The YouTube Terms of Service explicitly prohibit the collection of information that can be used to identify a person. Clearview has publicly admitted to doing exactly that, and in response we have sent them a cease-fire letter,” said YouTube's spokesperson, Alex Joseph, in a February statement to CBS News.
Facebook and Venmo also sent a C&D, although as the slate suggests, Peter Thiel currently sits on Facebook's board, but invested $ 200,000 in overseeing startup regardless.
These threats with legal consequences don't seem to have made much of an impression on Clearview CEO, Hoan Ton-That. In a recent CBS interview, Ton-That argued that Clearview has a first amendment right to scrap people online data: “The way we have built our system is to take only publicly available information and to index it in that way ,” he said. “You must remember that this is only used for investigations after the fact. This is not a 24/7 monitoring system.”
Companies that oppose Clearview clearly did not prevent law enforcement agencies from using the surveillance system. According to the company, more than 600 police departments in the US reportedly use the Clearview service – including the FBI and DHS.
The Chicago Police Department paid $ 50,000 for a two-year license for the system, CBS News reports, although a spokesperson for CPD noted that only 30 officers have access to it and the system is not used for live surveillance since it is in London .
“CPD uses a face adjusting tool to sort through its mugshot database and public source information in the course of an investigation triggered by an incident or crime,” it said in a statement to CBS.
Despite the CPD assurances that it would not use the system, Clearview's own marketing team seems to be pushing the police departments to do exactly that. In a November email to the Green Bay PD, which was taken over by BuzzFeed, the company actively encouraged agents to search the database for themselves, acquaintances, even celebrities.
“Have you already tried to take a selfish person with Clearview? ” Read the email. “It's the best way to quickly see the power of Clearview in real time. Try your friends or family. Or a celebrity like Joe Montana or George Clooney.”
“Your Clearview account has unlimited searches. So feel free to go wild with your searches,” the email continued.
That does not mean that the system is completely without merit. The participating law enforcement authorities are already using it to quickly detect shoplifting, identity theft and credit card fraud suspects. Clearview also claims that its app helped the NYPD detect a terrorism suspect last August, but the agency disputes the company's involvement in the case. Clearview is also reportedly used to help locate the victims of the child sex; however, its use in those classes of cases remains anecdotal at best and runs the risk of hurting the same kids it aims to help.
The use of Clearview to track minors, even with the best legal intentions, is a true ministry of concerns about privacy and data security. Because the police are expected to upload investigative images to Clearview's servers, the company may be able to collect a huge amount of highly sensitive data about any number of minor survivors of sexual abuse. And since the company's security measures are untested, unregulated and uncontrolled, the public has no guarantee that the data will be secure if and when Clearview systems are attacked.
In addition, the Clearview system has the same shortcomings as other face recognition systems: It is not as good at interpreting black and brown faces as it is for whites. The company claims that its search query is accurate for “all demographic groups “, but the ACLU strongly disagrees. When Clearview threw its services to the North Miami Police Department back in October 2019, the company included a report from a three-member panel reading, “The Independent Evaluation Committee determined that Clearview estimated 100 percent accurate, causing instant and accurate similarities for each photo image in the test. The accuracy was consistent across all races and demographic groups. “This study was reportedly conducted using the same methodology as the ACLU's 2018 test of Amazon's Recognition system, a claim that the ACLU rejects. The Civil Liberties Union notes that none of the three members of the evaluation committee had experience with the evaluation of face recognition systems.
“Clearview's technology gives the government the unprecedented power to spy on us wherever we go – following our faces at protests, [Alcoholics Anonymous] church meetings, and more,” ACLU Northern California lawyer Jacob Snow told BuzzFeed News. “Accurately or not, Clearview's technology in the hands of law enforcement will put an end to privacy as we know it.”
And it is not that the police are abusing their supervisory powers for personal gain, that is something new. In 2016, an Associated Press investigation found that police throughout the country routinely had access to secure databases to look up information about citizens who had nothing to do with their police work, including stalking former girlfriends. In 2013, a Florida agent searched for the personal information of a bank employee he was interested in. In 2009, a few FBI agents were caught mapping a women's dressing room where teenage girls were fitting prom dresses. These are not isolated incidents. In the same year that Clearview was established, DC agents attempted to intimidate Facebook to give them access to the personal profiles of more than 230 presidential inauguration protesters. With Clearview, the police should not even have to contact Facebook, because Clearview has probably scraped and made accessible all the dirt that the police are looking for.
“The armament options for this are endless,” Eric Goldman, co-director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University, told The New York Times in January. “Imagine that a rogue state agent wants to sneak up on potential romantic partners, or that a foreign government uses this to dig up secrets about people to blackmail them or throw them in prison.”
It is not surprising that Clearview's financiers are not worried about the potential of the system for abuse. “I have come to the conclusion that because the information is constantly increasing, there will never be privacy. David Scalzo, founder of Kirenaga Partners and early Clearview investor, told The New York Times.” Laws should determine what is legal, but you cannot prohibit technology. Certainly, that can lead to a dystopian future or something, but you can't forbid it. ”
Fortunately, our elected representatives are starting to become aware of the dangers that unregulated face recognition technologies such as Clearview bring to the public. A handful of cities in California, including San Francisco, Oakland and Alameda, have all instituted a moratorium on the use of technology by their local governments. California, New Hampshire and Oregon have adopted state-level restrictions and a number of other municipalities are considering taking similar steps in the near future.
Senator Edward J. Markey (D-MA) has also recently taken note of Clearview's behavior. In January, the Senator sent a strongly-worded letter to CEO Ton-De: fundamentally dismantle the Americans that they can move, assemble or just appear in public without being identified. ” The senator has also included a list of 14 questions for Ton, to be dealt with on Wednesday 12 February.
Whether Clearview is bowing to legal and legislative pressure here in the US is questionable, but hope is not awakened. The company is already looking to expand its services to 22 countries around the world, including a number of countries accused of human rights violations. These include the UAE, Qatar and Singapore, but also Brazil and Columbia, both of which have endured years of political and social struggle. There are even some EU countries that Clearview focuses on, including Italy, Greece and the Netherlands.
Soon we will no longer be able to set foot in public without our presence being noticed, catalyzed and tabulated. And when the government has the ability to know where someone is at that moment, our civil liberties will be irreversibly eroded. All this so that a handful of developers and investors can make a quick buck by selling our faces to the police in the name of public safety.