When London’s Metropolitan Police Department announced its decision to adopt the controversial and intrusive ClearView AI surveillance system at the end of January, a global cacophony of protest erupted. Concerns, fear and trepidation surrounding facial recognition technologies, especially those like Clearview which can ID people in real-time, have been simmering for decades, but the Met’s decision has finally caused public outrage to boil over. But how did we even get to the point where a relatively unknown startup managed to enact one of tentpoles of futuristic dystopia and begin marketing it to aspiring dictatorial regimes, all while earning the wrath of national governments and tech industry titans alike?
Clearview AI was founded in 2017 by Richard Schwartz and now-CEO Hoan Ton-That. The company counts Peter Thiel and AngelList founder Naval Ravikant among its investors. Clearview’s technology is actually quite simple: Its facial recognition algorithm compares the image of a person’s face from security camera footage to an existing database of potential matches. Marketed primarily to law enforcement agencies, the Clearview app allows users to take and upload a picture of a person then view all of the public images of that person as well as links to where those photos were published. Basically, if you’re caught on camera anywhere in public, local law enforcement can use that image to mine your entire online presence for information about you, effectively ending any semblance of personal privacy.
However, the technology itself isn’t an issue, it’s how the company acquired its 3 billion-image database: Clearview scraped images from our collective social media profiles. Until it got caught, the company reportedly lifted pictures from Twitter, Facebook, Venmo and millions of other websites over the past few years. Twitter recently sent a cease-and-desist letter to Clearview after the company’s actions were revealed, claiming that the company’s actions violated Twitter’s policies and demanding that Clearview stop lifting images from its platform immediately.
Google and YouTube made similar claims in their cease-and-desist letter. “YouTube’s Terms of Service explicitly forbid collecting data that can be used to identify a person. Clearview has publicly admitted to doing exactly that, and in response we sent them a cease-and-desist letter,” YouTube spokesperson Alex Joseph said in a February statement to CBS News.
These threats of legal consequences don’t appear 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 scrape people’s online data: “The way we have built our system is to only take publicly available information and index it that way,” he said. “You have to remember that this is only used for investigations after the fact. This is not a 24/7 surveillance system.”