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Clearview A.I.’s Controversial Facial Recognition Technology

Until recently, Clearview A.I. was a relatively unknown and secretive company. Following the publication of a recent New York Times article, the company has become the center of data privacy concerns. Clearview A.I. is a facial recognition company created by Hoan Ton-That in 2016. The company scrapes images of people’s faces from millions of websites, including Facebook, Twitter, Venmo, and YouTube. A user can then upload an image of a person, and the system will match it to one of the three billion scraped images.

Clearview’s official website states that the company “does not and cannot search any private or protected info, including in [one’s] private social media accounts,” and its “search engine is available only for law enforcement agencies and select security professionals to use as an investigative tool.” Nonetheless, several organizations have raised concerns regarding the privacy implications and accuracy of the program.

For example, New Jersey’s Attorney General, Gurbir S. Grewal, filed a cease and desist letter to stop Clearview from using the attorney general’s office in the company’s promotional videos without the office’s consent.  Grewal explained that he was not “categorically opposed” to facial recognition software. Instead, he stated that he needed to have a full understanding of its impact and ensure that appropriate safeguards are developed and followed before advocating for its use. Politicians have also stepped into the discussion to offer their concerns. Senator Edward Markey (D-MD) sent a letter to Clearview stating that the company is “fundamentally dismantling Americans’ expectation that they can move, assemble, or simply appear in public without being identified.” Other politicians have voiced similar concerns over facial recognition technology. Most notably, an aide to Bernie Sanders stated that “Mr. Sanders, if elected president, would bar law enforcement from using facial recognition software.” Government agencies and politicians are not the only organizations that have taken action against Clearview. Twitter also recently sent a cease and desist letter to the company demanding that Clearview stop taking photos from its website and delete any data that it previously collected.

Most of the aforementioned concerns stem from the belief that Clearview will create a “big brother” dystopia and people’s privacy will be eviscerated. While the company claims to only license its software to law enforcement agencies, police officers and investors predict that it will be available to the public. Private citizens could then start searching and identifying others by facial features. This could lead to the dissemination of private information, a possibility with broad ramifications.

While individual data privacy problems are the majority of the concerns, there are also organizations who question Clearview’s accuracy. On Clearview’s website, the company states that “an independent panel of experts reviewed and certified Clearview for accuracy and reliability.” The company reports that the “tool finds matches up to 75 percent of the time.”  However, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) describes the report used to demonstrate Clearview’s reliability as absurd and stated, “if Clearview is so confident about its technology, it should subject its product to rigorous independent testing in real-life settings.” Likewise, Clare Garvie, a researcher at Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology claims, “we have no data to suggest this tool is accurate.”

Ensuring Clearview’s accuracy is essential for accurate law enforcement. Similar concerns were raised last year when a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that Amazon’s facial recognition software had gender and race biases in its algorithm.  Law enforcement could mistakenly believe someone is a suspect in a crime based on Clearview’s results and react hostilely or justify other action on false and misleading information. These inaccuracies could have a ripple effect leading to multiple civil and criminal rights violations­.

New lawsuits continue to be filed as the company evolves and grows in its use. The future of Clearview remains unknown as more information about the company ends up into the hands of the public. Clearly, as the company grows, additional litigation and other issues regarding the company’s use of data will rise.

Joshua Pereira

GLTR Staff Member; Georgetown Law, J.D. expected 2021; University of Minnesota, B.A. 2016. © 2020, Joshua Pereira.