The use of artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology has sprung numerous debates related to privacy. In some countries, face recognition is used for mass surveillance purposes. Such is the case in China, where you cannot get a new SIM card for your smartphone unless your face is scanned. In the case of technology startup Clearview AI, however, the issues go beyond privacy.
Several hundred law enforcement agencies in the United States are clients of Clearview AI, a technology startup that employs artificial intelligence and advanced facial recognition to parse billions of images harvested from social networks and various websites. It’s founder and CEO, Hoan Ton-That, is a Vietnamese-Australian developer who has staunchly defended his product. Ton-That describes it simply as “a search engine for faces.”
While some of the police departments currently using Clearview’s technology have been able to augment investigations and even prevent crimes, the AI engine has proven to be less accurate than what Ton-That has suggested in public interviews. There is also the issue of how the company has collected its massive database of photographs and information: by means of scraping Facebook and other websites where users post and tag images with their own personal information. The company claims that its data collection practices are in line with First Amendment protections, but the American Civil Liberties Union has labeled that claim as a gross misinterpretation.
To add even more fuel, Clearview co-founder Richard Schwartz was once an adviser to the former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was recently embroiled in the scandal that resulted in the impeachment of President Donald Trump. Further complicating things is the assessment of experts who have reviewed the AI algorithm used by the company, who opine that it has a certain bias towards people of color.
Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Venmo are some of the tech firms that have filed cease-and-desist letters against the company’s admitted scraping of images. Class-action lawsuits have been filed in Virginia, and Illinois; the California branch of the ACLU is ready to file a complaint in court, and the New Jersey Attorney General Office has prohibited its law enforcement agencies from retaining the services of the tech firm.