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 @ 5:12pm

    Re: Alternative for facial recognition

    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.

    Power would exempt themselves from this as well. Don't fool yourself into believing otherwise. Sure it will catch criminals of all kinds, and plenty more will rot in jail indefinitely because society can never rehabilitate only punish, and the criminals that deserve catching the most, those that deserve society's wrath the most, will be the ones the system is designed to protect. The biggest criminals will be the ones running it. Unofficially of course, and they will be the ones that system goes out of it's way to claim are innocent in every accusation. Hell, give them enough time and they will have it doctoring evidence to put away people that they want to disappear.

    The biggest threat is with people being afraid to question it. "I might be next." "They might doctor the evidence against me." If you think that this system will be run in a manner fully transparent to the public you're an idiot. A gullible fool who's exactly the type of person their propaganda is targeting, and you're falling for it. Wishing away the privacy of yourself and others in a false blind faith that it will usher in the utopia of zero criminal activity without fixing any of society's ills and without consequence that you so desperately crave. News flash: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

    Unfortunately responsible adults are an endangered species it seems.

    Must be, considering you sure as hell aren't one of them. A responsible adult would reject such a system. Not only for the huge risk for abuse, but also for the standard it sets for children. What? The idea of "God knows everything you do and will judge you for it" isn't holding enough fear in people anymore, so you decided to throw powerful and corrupt humans into the mix to up the ante? Surveillance isn't a panacea for society's ills. Most criminal activity has a cause, and you'll never reduce it to zero. If you really want to fix things, maybe start with showing some compassion for others, and a willingness to rehabilitate instead of punish. Quit passing laws meant to exclude people from society, and repeal the ones that already exist. Take mental health conditions seriously and allow older people to learn how to socialize properly instead of ridicule them for what they lack. There are plenty of ways to deal with crime that don't involve society losing fundamental freedoms, be a responsible adult and demand those be implemented instead of demanding that crime be reduced for you.


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