On the latest episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver turned his attention to the increasingly widespread use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement. Heavily citing Kashmir Hill’s investigation of Clearview AI in the New York Times, Oliver explained how a then little-known company created a groundbreaking app where users can take a picture of a person, upload it, and cross-reference it against 3 billion images that the company has scraped from Facebook, Twitter, Venmo, and other websites.
Since Hill’s investigation was published, Twitter, Facebook, Google, and others have sent cease-and-desist letters to Clearview for violating the websites’ terms of service. Still, the company maintains that harvesting the personal information of millions for a secretive database is within the company’s First Amendment rights. “You might as well argue that you have an Eighth Amendment right to dress up rabbits like John Lennon,” Oliver said. “That Amendment does not cover what I think you think it does.”
Oliver also detailed the danger that facial recognition poses to the thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets in recent weeks. In the aftermath of the protests over the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore police used facial recognition on social media photos to identify and target protesters, and Clearview has contracts with more than 600 law enforcement agencies. Still, there’s some hope: Recent concern has prompted companies like Microsoft , IBM, and Amazon to stop selling facial recognition technologies to law enforcement (if only temporarily).
Oliver has another suggestion for people who want to express their outrage at companies like Clearview. “The next time you feel the need to upload a photo, maybe … hold up a sign that says, ‘These photos were taken unwillingly, and I’d rather you not be looking at them. Or if that feels too complicated, just ‘Fuck Clearview.’ That really does get the message across.”