Clearview Was A Toy For Billionaires Before It Became A Toy For Cops

from the searching-billions-of-images-for-fun-and-profit dept

Clearview's claims that its controversial facial recognition program is only for use by law enforcement agencies continues to be exposed as a lie. Documents obtained by BuzzFeed showed the company has sold its tech to a variety of private companies, including major retailers like Kohl's and Walmart.

It's also expanding its reach across the globe, pitching its products to dozens of countries, including those known mostly for their human rights violations. Even when it limits itself to law enforcement agencies, it still can't help lying -- exaggerating its success and assistance in criminal investigations.

Before Clearview became a plaything for government agencies and private corporations, it was a toy for the rich and powerful. Kashmir Hill -- who broke the first story about Clearview's problematic image-scraping operation -- has a followup in the New York Times detailing the company's unpleasant origin story.

One Tuesday night in October 2018, John Catsimatidis, the billionaire owner of the Gristedes grocery store chain, was having dinner at Cipriani, an upscale Italian restaurant in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, when his daughter, Andrea, walked in. She was on a date with a man Mr. Catsimatidis didn’t recognize. After the couple sat down at another table, Mr. Catsimatidis asked a waiter to go over and take a photo.

Mr. Catsimatidis then uploaded the picture to a facial recognition app, Clearview AI, on his phone. The start-up behind the app has a database of billions of photos, scraped from sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Within seconds, Mr. Catsimatidis was viewing a collection of photos of the mystery man, along with the web addresses where they appeared: His daughter’s date was a venture capitalist from San Francisco.

“I wanted to make sure he wasn’t a charlatan,” said Mr. Catsimatidis, who then texted the man’s bio to his daughter.

That's just one anecdote. There are others. Investors approached by Clearview, like venture capitalist Hal Lambert, explored the power of Clearview's app in pretty irresponsible ways. Lambert allowed his school-aged daughters access to the app. And it appears actor/investor Ashton Kutcher was given access to the app. He described an app that sounds exactly like Clearview when he appeared on the YouTube series "Hot Ones" last September.

“I have an app in my phone in my pocket right now. It’s like a beta app,” Mr. Kutcher said. “It’s a facial recognition app. I can hold it up to anybody’s face here and, like, find exactly who you are, what internet accounts you’re on, what they look like. It’s terrifying.”

It is terrifying. And far more people have had access to it than Clearview has admitted. Plenty of potential investors were given access to the app. It's not clear how many still have access, but it appears their use of the app went unmonitored/uncontrolled by Clearview. Understandably, investors want to know if the thing they're looking to invest in works, but Clearview did nothing to ensure this access was limited or used responsibly. That same attitude has carried over to its pitches to law enforcement, which encourages cops to use friends and family members as guinea pigs for tech it claims should only be used for legitimate law enforcement efforts.

Power and responsibility are supposed to go hand-in-hand. There's none of that happening here. Clearview compiled a database by scraping images from hundreds of websites and is now selling this access to pretty much anyone willing to buy it.

Filed Under: billionaires, facial recognition, john catsimatidis
Companies: clearview, clearview ai


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Mar 2020 @ 6:12am

    Alternative for facial recognition

    Personally I find the dangers of facial recognition overblown. The two actual risks are from it getting it wrong and being used authoritatively (in a set like this which is likely overtrained to hell and back - no way will it maintain accuracy at full scale). The second is asymmetry if it is actually accurate. Imagine using this app on police officers engaged in abuse and correlating it with other footage and behavior that went uncaught. Yeah that police officer literally participates in neo-nazi marches. That "family values" politician in a trenchcoat was in the sleaziest gay bar in town.

    I won't deny that a tranaition to a transparent society will be uncomfortable, awkward, an probably serially career ruining but it is more sane than the status quo and ironically the only responsible adult action as opposed to sticking our head in the sand with unenforceable bans which power would exempt themselves from. Unfortunately responsible adults are an endangered species it seems.


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