Your Instagram pictures could be part of a facial recognition database That’s been made available to law enforcement agencies. That’s thanks to Clearview AI, a mysterious startup that has scraped billions of images from across the web, including from social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter.
Faced with these concerns, the world’s largest tech companies are stepping up, sending cease-and-desist letters to Clearview that order the company to stop scraping their sites for our data. But it’s not clear how much power those companies have, or how invested they actually are in protecting our personal information. While some lawsuits against Clearview are also popping up, it’s not yet apparent how Clearview could be stopped. That has privacy advocates pointing to the need for a federal law regulating, or even outright banning, facial recognition in the United States.
Facial recognition is new. But this huge database of faces is.
So here’s how Clearview’s tool works. Say you have an image of a person, but you don’t know their name. You could input that photo into Clearview’s app, and it will turn up any image of the person that it had scraped from the internet, as well as links to websites from which those images came. That could be a good amount of information.
Again, Clearview’s database reportedly includes more than 3 billion images taken from around the web. That’s much more than what law enforcement agencies typically have access to. The Times reports that the technology will work with images of faces from many different angles, while older facial recognition tools used by police departments might require the subject to be looking straight ahead, like in a mug shot.
That means images from social media posts on platforms like Instagram could pop up – even images
that are no longer, but once were, publicly available . And keep in mind: The tool doesn’t just surface pictures that you’ve taken and posted online. It will also turn up any photos posted of you, even those posted without your consent or knowledge. “Clearview is a search engine for publicly available images,” Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That told Recode in an email. “We do not and cannot index any images that are private or protected, such as those in a private Instagram account. A previously public image may or may not be searchable with Clearview depending on the time it was public and that would depend on the individual case. ” Clearview decides who can – and can’t – use this tool
more than 1200 law enforcement agencies have used Clearview AI in the past year, as have federal agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), according to the Times. The FBI would not confirm to Recode that it had used Clearview’s tool, instead pointing to
last year about its use of facial recognition more broadly from June . The DHS did not respond to Recode’s request for comment by the time of publication.
The tool has also been provided to some companies for security, though Ton-That wouldn’t tell Recode which ones. The Times has reported that “at least a handful of companies” have obtained licenses for Clearview’s technology “for security purposes.” Meanwhile, Ton-That told Recode: “We decline to comment due to confidentiality and other reasons.”
It’s also unclear who else, including foreign governments , Clearview is willing to do business with. Ton-That
and such a development could destroy our expectation of being anonymous in public
. It is not difficult to imagine terrifying uses of this. Imagine if a nude picture of you was, at some point in time, posted online. With the snap of a phone camera, it’s possible that anyone with Clearview could instantaneously find that image. Or imagine you’re walking down the street, and someone decides they want to know where you live and whether you had kids. All they might need is the Clearview app. The scope of Clearview’s threat to privacy remains unclear. The Times reported : “Police officers and Clearview’s investors predict that its app will eventually be available to the public. ”That’s different from what Ton-That told Recode. Our strict commitment at this time and at all times previously is and has been not to make this tool available to the general public, ”Ton-That said in an email. “Our mission is to reduce crime, fraud, and abuse using our powerful new technology. Any abuse of our technology would be in total violation of our mission and values. ”
There are some good reasons not to trust the company Clearview’s past has raised alarm bells. For one thing, CEO Hoan Ton-That’s previous ventures included an app that added Trump’s hair onto photos of people, and he’s also been linked to a (phishing)
. At one point, the company tried to sell a database for “extreme opposition research” to Paul Nehlen, a white supremacist and anti-Semite
As users of these technology platforms, members of the public are now in a curious position. Although we’ve long criticized these platforms for profiting off our data, we’re now potentially reliant on these companies to defend us from a dystopian world of facial recognition. Keep in mind that several of these companies, like Google
In a later email, Ton-That said: “We’re processing removal requests for persons. in jurisdictions that impose that legal requirement. ”In order to make those requests, you would need to confirm your identity with Clearview by sending in – get this – a photo of yourself on a government ID.
But if you (understandably) don’t feel comfortable doing that, you might consider suing Clearview. At least two lawsuits have already been filed in Illinois, and another lawsuit has been filed against Clearview in Virginia. While Texas also has a biometric privacy law, it requires the state’s attorney general to take action. That hasn’t happened yet. Ton-That said that Clearview designed its tool to follow “all relevant laws and regulation. ”
Scott Drury, a former Illinois state representative and attorney representing one of those class action lawsuits, told Recode they’re not just arguing that Clearview violated the Illinois Biometric Privacy Act. He said they’re also suing on constitutional grounds. “In this case, you have citizens who clearly have a right to their privacy and they have a right to know how the photographs that they put online are being used, ”Drury said. “And Clearview, working with law enforcement, specifically and covertly took these photos and scraped them from the internet and did not let anyone know that they were doing that.”
The controversy has prompted some police departments to speak out. Now, the NYPD is denying that it has an “institutional relationship” with the company, according to BuzzFeed News
. The Chicago Police Department has said that, after a trial, it spent nearly $ 95, to use the tech for two years, (according to the Chicago Sun-Times) . Meanwhile, the state attorney general of New Jersey has ordered that all police in the state
stop using the tool
. A (few cities) have already banned law enforcement from using facial recognition. The revelations about Clearview AI have also bolstered calls for federal regulation of the technology. “Congress needs to stop messing around and pass legislation to ban the use of face surveillance technology nationwide, ”said Evan Greer, the deputy director for the digital rights group Fight for the Future, in a statement. That mimics what other privacy advocates are saying . And some lawmakers appear to be listening. When the New York Times story came out, Sen. Cory Booker also 1225834890341556226 that if “Congress doesn’t act to limit the use of technology in this manner we risk losing our privacy and our freedom.” And at the end of January , Sen. Ed Markey (written) to Ton-That demanding a list of all law enforcement and intelligence agencies in communication with Clearview, along with other questions. His office is continuing to look at the company, and says it will be taking further steps. Still, facial recognition has long been used by law enforcement agencies. So while it’s possible that Clearview AI could finally galvanize enough backlash to get lawmakers to act, only time will tell. In the meantime, now would be a great time to switch your social media accounts to private. You friends might care what you were wearing Saturday night, but maybe that’s something the cops don’t need to know. Open Sourced
It is made possible by the Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.
oh no you don't — Vermont has a law regulating data brokers and claims Clearview broke it. Kate Cox - Mar 11, 2020 8:09 pm UTC Enlarge / The everything is watching, and Clearview's collecting the images.Clearview AI's bread and butter is a tool providing facial recognition on a massive scale to law enforcement, federal…