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Law Enforcement's New Facial Recognition Toy Scrapes Photos From Websites, Serves Up 'Matches' In Seconds

from the be-your-own-worst-enemy dept

The biggest collection of biometric data isn't housed by any government agency. In fact, it's not owned by any single private company in the world. It's the internet itself, which houses multiple billions of face photographs that one company is using to give law enforcement perhaps its sketchiest facial recognition tool yet. Kashmir Hill has the full report for the New York Times.

Until recently, Hoan Ton-That’s greatest hits included an obscure iPhone game and an app that let people put Donald Trump’s distinctive yellow hair on their own photos.

[...]

His tiny company, Clearview AI, devised a groundbreaking facial recognition app. You take a picture of a person, upload it and get to see public photos of that person, along with links to where those photos appeared. The system — whose backbone is a database of more than three billion images that Clearview claims to have scraped from Facebook, YouTube, Venmo and millions of other websites — goes far beyond anything ever constructed by the United States government or Silicon Valley giants.

The scraping of photos presumably continues. There's a market for this -- a growing market filled with law enforcement agencies that like the billions of images and the lower cost of Clearview. They're no longer limited to government databases or required to sign MOUs with other agencies to obtain access.

The law enforcement agencies that have used it love it. But that ends the list of the app's fans. Certainly no one concerned about the unreliability of facial recognition tech is going to be pleased there's an unproven upstart matching faces against the Internet. The multiple sites scraped by Ton-That's software aren't happy either, claiming the scraping violates their many Terms of Service.

But that's something for the courts to decide! (Badly, most likely.) Until the CFAA suits start rolling in, Clearview is capitalizing on the success stories being passed around by law enforcement agencies. Not bad for an app first conceived as a way to vet babysitters or allow hotels to greet guests by name.

In February, the Indiana State Police started experimenting with Clearview. They solved a case within 20 minutes of using the app. Two men had gotten into a fight in a park, and it ended when one shot the other in the stomach. A bystander recorded the crime on a phone, so the police had a still of the gunman’s face to run through Clearview’s app.

They immediately got a match: The man appeared in a video that someone had posted on social media, and his name was included in a caption on the video. “He did not have a driver’s license and hadn’t been arrested as an adult, so he wasn’t in government databases,” said Chuck Cohen, an Indiana State Police captain at the time.

This is just one example. There are many more in Kashmir Hill's article. Clearview's pitch to cop shops talks about identifying sex offenders, John Doe corpses, and identity fraud suspects. The Gainesville, Florida police department ran cold cases against the app and came up with more than 30 suspects.

Clearview's accuracy is still unproven. That a detective ran the app and created a list of 30 suspects does not mean the Gainesville PD is any closer to solving these cases. But it may be much closer to rounding up innocent people and trying to put them behind bars. Clearview's AI was not tested by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in its recent examination of facial recognition tech, but that's probably a good thing. It would only have made the average results worse.

[T]he company said its tool finds matches up to 75 percent of the time. But it is unclear how often the tool delivers false matches, because it has not been tested by an independent party…

Some of that unpredictability comes from Clearview's unique "database:" images scraped from all over the internet and "matched" using an unknown set of constraints. With enough pushback from the sites "donating" their users' images to Clearview, the app would become useless -- no better than cops running reverse image searches from security camera footage and hoping for the best. This statement of confidence from the app's developer is less than reassuring.

“A lot of people are doing it [scraping sites],” Mr. Ton-That shrugged. “Facebook knows.”

Yep. And some of the scrapees might take steps to prevent future scraping. Or any number of competitors can scrape the same sites, dump it into some serviceable AI software, and tell cops they've just identified the guy wanted for an unsolved murder from three decades ago. Whether or not that pans out, the cops at least have someone they can talk to, rather than a dusty file no one's bothered to look at for the last two decades.

Clearview is just another step towards the elimination of privacy in public. And it's being fed unwittingly by sites and services that offer a way for people to connect. Even Clearview's CEO seems taken aback by the implications of the software he's selling to government agencies. But it's not enough to stop him from doing it.

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Filed Under: ai, facial recognition, hoan thon-that, law enforcement, peter thiel, scraping
Companies: clearview ai


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  • icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 23 Jan 2020 @ 12:15pm

    I'm the one in the gorilla mask

    "[T]he company said its tool finds matches up to 75 percent of the time. But it is unclear how often the tool delivers false matches, because it has not been tested by an independent party…"

    Things like this makes one wonder how many positive hits they got from those pictures of the costume party?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 12:26pm

    Its sad. There is nothing left to explore on earth. The governments now stoops to using toy technology to explore billions of faces that would rather be left alone.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 12:30pm

    One problem with this application is that the names attached to photographs may not be of the person photographed. Sooner or latter the result will be a swatting of someone who looks nothing like the suspect they are looking for.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 12:42pm

    Sometimes the courts in the US falsely believe they have jurisdiction when they do not. Usually they do, but sometimes executive authority makes a decision non-justiciable.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 1:33pm

      Re:

      I am curious, is there an example of a us court falsely believing they had jurisdiction when they did not?

      Executive authority is a bullshit excuse for abuse of power. Please explain how this sometimes changes the jurisdiction of a court.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 1:43pm

        Re: Re:

        The jurisdiction one is easy.
        Just search this site on the subject.

        One example is the extended family of the medic killed in a warzone who sued and won in the states .
        The grenade tosser was a kid who was captured and shipped to gitmo and "interrogated", sued the Canadian gov for not doing anything and won.

        Family wants the now young mans money because.... money.

        Canadian courts said take off eh!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 3:49pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Where is the claimed executive power and how did that change jurisdiction of ... which court?

          Perhaps a case number would do.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 1:28pm

    One should not play with matches

    Clearview found "matches"
    lol, I'm sure they did

    I wonder whether any of the matches were the guy from the park.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 1:39pm

    I wonder if they are scraping pages which are set as private. A lot of sites, you can't even look at public pages without signing in, except for bots, i guess.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 1:56pm

    Yep. And some of the scrapees might take steps to prevent future scraping.

    ahem

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 2:15pm

    That company can stop celebrating its shortlived success if the coronavirus outbreak neccessitates humans around the globe start wearing surgical masks to prevent infection. Law enforcement may have bigger fish to fry, like a global pandemic and marshall law.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Umbrella Corporation, 23 Jan 2020 @ 3:51pm

      Nothing to see here

      Move along

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 26 Jan 2020 @ 1:43pm

      Re:

      Air travel should be shut down in order to control this virus. A person who is infected may not know it for up to two weeks during which type they are contageous and may be spreading disease with every contact. This is a total nightmare if you are human.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 4:52pm

    Sorry, Hamilton. Hoan Ton-That did not invent facial recognition tech.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 23 Jan 2020 @ 7:56pm

    Need to start a dumpster fire?

    Use these matches.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Cowardly Lion, 24 Jan 2020 @ 1:23am

    The pushback has started

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    lucidrenegade (profile), 24 Jan 2020 @ 9:01am

    Hoan Ton-That sounds like quite the upstanding citizen.

    "He previously created HappyAppy and ViddyHo, a phishing application or computer worm that spammed a users' contacts. Ton-That was sought by the police when this worm spread in 2009. He then created fastforwarded.com, a similar phishing site."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Professor Ronny, 24 Jan 2020 @ 10:00am

    Scrapping

    The scraping of photos presumably continues.

    Isn't this a copyright violation, not of Facebook et.al. but of the users who uploaded their own photographs? Could they all issue a take down notice or what ever you would call it for a database?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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