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Clearview AI: How a start-up could end privacy

Wednesday, 22 January 2020
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

The U.S. start-up Clearview collects billions of online photos of unknown people and shares them with public authorities.

The start-up “might end privacy as we know it,” said the New York Times. Meanwhile, European leaders consider a temporary ban on facial recognition in public spaces.

Until Saturday, little had been known about Clearview, a US start-up that shared several billion pictures with law enforcement officials via its face recognition software.

And until the NYT release, hardly anyone might have heard about the company – on purpose, as the Times reports.

Face recognition software used by F.B.I. and Homeland Security

More than 600 authorities, amongst them the F.B.I. and the US Department of Homeland Security would use Clearview’s face-recognition services, the company stated. The software would help to solve shoplifting, credit card fraud and murder. On Clearview’s website, a Canadian investigator explains how they successfully use the software to fight child sexual abuse.

In principle, Clearview’s software is not revolutionary. Rather, the tool is a powerful mix of existing face recognition technologies. Using pictures from social platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, the software is assumed to recognize millions of faces within seconds, based on a transition of pictures into mathematic models.

Yet federal and state law enforcement officers admit they have little knowledge of how Clearview’s service actually works. And according to the NYT, private businesses are also able to buy licenses to access the billions of pictures saved in the database.

EU leaders consider a ban on facial recognition

In contrast to US law enforcement authorities, however, European leaders are even considering a ban of up to five years on the use of facial recognition technologies in public spaces.

This information had been published by Politico on Friday, just before the NYT release. A related Commission draft document is expected to be presented to EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in mid-February.

A temporary ban on facial recognition software would give EU leaders more time “for assessing the impacts of this technology and possible risk management measures,” the draft document says. As the case of Clearview shows, setting up clear rules in the first place is indeed a good recommendation.

Clearview can manipulate search results

The fact that Clearview has the ability to track who the police are looking for is heavily criticized. Further, the company could manipulate search results that will be shown to the police.

Regardless of its shortcomings, law enforcement agencies seem to prioritise the use of the start-up. The software seems to work and several hundred authorities use the tool. To a certain extent, this might also be due to Clearview’s simple but effective sales strategy: a 30-day free trial.

“Facebook knows”

Clearview consciously violates Facebook’s terms of use by taking users’ pictures without consent. Founder Ton-That, however, does not consider this to be a problem. “A lot of people are doing it,” he said, according to the NYT, adding that “Facebook knows.”

Shortly after the NYT release, #ClearView was already trending on social media with hundreds of related comments. As facial recognition is generally criticised for its tendency to deliver incorrect matches. Where Clearview is concerned, it also faces criticism for missing official data on the tools’ accuracy.

So far, the technology is not available to private individuals.

However, investors say a big market potential can be expected in the future.

Big brother might soon be watching you.

Maximilian Kunisch