FBI and Law Enforcement Use New Facial Recognition Tool

A small startup named Clearview AI, led by Hoan Ton-That, created a facial recognition app that may exceed the scope of anything built by the U.S. government or Big Tech companies. Now in the hands of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and hundreds of other law enforcement agencies, the app allows the user to take a photo of a person, upload it and search a database of more than three billion images to find public photos of that person with links to where they appeared. Images have been scraped from Facebook, YouTube, Venmo and “millions of other websites.”

The New York Times reports that, “until now, technology that readily identifies everyone based on his or her face has been taboo because of its radical erosion of privacy … [and that] tech companies capable of releasing such a tool have refrained from doing so.” Clearview AI stated that currently 600+ law enforcement agencies are using its tool, although “some large cities, including San Francisco, have barred police from using facial recognition technology.”

Clearview has also licensed its technology to “at least a handful of companies for security purposes.” “The weaponization possibilities of this are endless,” said Santa Clara University’s High Tech Law Institute co-director Eric Goldman. “Imagine a rogue law enforcement officer who wants to stalk potential romantic partners, or a foreign government using this to dig up secrets about people to blackmail them or throw them in jail.”

Although Clearview AI is “shrouded in secrecy,” NYT was able to find out that, in addition to Ton-That, the company was founded by Richard Schwartz, an aide to Rudolph Giuliani when he was New York mayor, and is backed financially by venture capitalist Peter Thiel and Kirenaga Partners.

NYT conducted a test of the computer code underlying the app, which “includes programming language to pair it with augmented-reality glasses.” “Users would potentially be able to identify every person they saw,” it concludes. Facebook also prohibits scraping of photos, which Clearview AI relies on; Thiel sits on Facebook’s board.

Clearview AI has never been tested by an independent expert, such as NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology). Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology researcher Clare Garvie noted that there is no data to suggest Clearview’s results are accurate.

TechCrunch reports that, “the European Commission is considering a temporary ban on the use of facial recognition technology, according to a draft proposal for regulating artificial intelligence obtained by Euractiv.” The new Commission, headed by Ursula von der Leyen, stated that rules to ensure AI is “trustworthy and human” are a key policy goal.

The leaked proposal, however, “suggests the EU’s executive body is in fact leaning towards tweaks of existing rules and sector/app specific risk-assessments and requirements [i.e., GDPR], rather than anything as firm as blanket sectoral requirements or bans.” It proposes that, for a three-to-five-year period, facial recognition be prohibited in public spaces, “to give EU lawmakers time to devise ways to assess and manage risks around the use of the technology.”

The Commission also “suggests leaving it open to Member States to choose whether to rely on existing governance bodies for this task or create new ones dedicated to regulating AI.”