The Industry

Clearview’s Terrifying Facial Recognition Can’t Go Back in the Bottle

A phone screen showing Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Google logos.
Half a dozen big tech companies have demanded that Clearview AI stop scraping their data. DENIS CHARLET/Getty Images

Around half a dozen big tech companies have now demanded that Clearview AI, the now-notorious facial recognition company that has scraped more than 3 billion images of people from millions of websites, stop using their data.

Clearview, which was founded in 2016, has been under scrutiny ever since the New York Times reported on its crusade for omniscience in January. The Times found that the company has been marketing its powerful facial recognition tool to law enforcement for the last few years. In one case, Indiana State Police officers were able to use Clearview’s app to track down a shooting suspect in 20 minutes based on footage that a bystander had captured on a phone. Police in New Jersey, Georgia, Alabama, Illinois, and Florida have also used the app for crimes as petty as mailbox thefts. Because Clearview takes images from social media and other websites, and not just from mug shots and driver’s license photos, its database is superior to what most law enforcement usually has access to. Police say that Clearview’s algorithm can also identify people from various angles, whereas many technologies require the target to be looking into a camera.

One immediate react to the report was: Facial-recognition technology should be banned, ASAP. Another was: If governments won’t do the banning, Facebook, Twitter, and all the other companies that made Clearview possible should. We’re now going to find out how hard these companies are willing to try—and if it will matter.

The week after the report came out, Twitter sent a cease-and-desist letter to the company ordering it to stop mining the social media platform’s data and delete anything it had already collected. CBS then reported this week that Google, its subsidiary YouTube, and Venmno sent their own cease-and-desist letters, and LinkedIn told BuzzFeed on Thursday that it had done the same. Facebook notably has not sent a formal cease-and-desist letter but claims to have sent other letters to Clearview to request more detail on its practices and then eventually “demanded” that it stop scraping user data. Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist and notable surveillance enthusiast who sits on Facebook’s board of directors, invested $200,000 in Clearview’s first round of funding.

Hoan Ton-That, and app developer and entrepreneur who co-founded Clearview, has been trying to defend his company’s practices over the last month. He puzzlingly argued to CBS that the company has a First Amendment right to social media pictures because they are publicly available information. He also claimed that the tool is only available to law enforcement and said, “You have to remember that this is only used for investigations after the fact. This is not a 24/7 surveillance system.” BuzzFeed has found, though, that Clearview is seeking to expand internationally, pitching its product to 22 countries, some of whom have committed human rights abuses.

There have been few laws put in place regulating the use of facial regulation in the U.S., particularly at the federal level, which like made the emergence of Clearview or a similarly brazen company inevitable. These larger tech companies could try to hogtie Clearview in the courts, but imitators would presumably show up to fill its place. If anything could stop technology like Clearview’s from becoming the new normal, it’s probably not Facebook, but Congress.