Not every tech company is following the lead of Amazon and IBM when it comes to facial-recognition technology. Clearview AI—a startup that’s amassed over 3 billion images of people that were posted on the internet—will continue providing its tool to law enforcement.
Clearview AI offers its system to hundreds of police departments, and it has no plans to stop. “While Amazon, Google, and IBM have decided to exit the marketplace, Clearview AI believes in the mission of responsibly used facial recognition to protect children, victims of financial fraud, and other crimes that afflict our communities,” CEO Hoan Ton-That said in a statement.
Ton-That has described his system as a search engine for faces. Clients such as police officers can upload a picture of someone’s face, and Clearview will return matching images along with links to the person’s identity. However, as The New York Times documented last year, the company’s database was created by scraping people’s images from news sites and social media profiles, without asking for anyone’s consent.
Now those images are powering a database that is effectively cataloging people’s facial features and learning to instantly recognize them. The technology is sparking fears among privacy advocates that Clearview will help pave the way for mass surveillance systems that can undermine people’s ability to meet and assemble anonymously.
“Companies like Clearview will end privacy as we know it, and must be stopped,” according Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Last month, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in Illinois against Clearview, charging the company has violated local laws by collecting people’s facial data without their permission. That prompted Clearview to end its relationships with “non-governmental customers,” BuzzFeed reported.
Meanwhile, US senators, including Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), have been urging the Trump administration to avoid using facial-recognition systems such as Clearview to identity protesters in the recent George Floyd marches.
“Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that facial-recognition algorithms are significantly less accurate for people with non-white skin tones,” the senators wrote in a letter to US Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday.
Despite the scrutiny and the criticism, Clearview has refused to back down on offering its technology to law enforcement. “Facial recognition has existed for 20 years, and Clearview AI has created groundbreaking technology that actually works,” Ton-That said in his statement. “Unlike Amazon Rekognition, which misidentified people of color, an independent study, using the same methodology, indicated that Clearview AI has no racial bias.” (The ACLU disagrees, and says the study was flawed, according to BuzzFeed.)
Ton-That also points out Clearview is designed only “for after-the-crime investigations” to help police identify suspects taken from crime scenes. “It is not intended to be used as a surveillance tool relating to protests or under any other circumstances,” he added. “We strongly believe in protecting our communities, and with these principles in mind, look forward to working with government and policy makers to help develop appropriate protocols for the proper use of facial recognition.”
A blog post from the company in January adds: “We strictly enforce our Code of Conduct, and suspend or terminate users who violate it.”
This article originally published at PCMag