LLast week, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) fined a small tech company called Clearview AI £7.5million for “using images of people in the UK UK and elsewhere, which has been collected from the web and social media to create a global online database that could be used for facial recognition.” The ICO also issued an enforcement notice, ordering the company to cease obtaining and using personal data of UK residents that is publicly available on the Internet and to delete UK resident data from its systems.
Since Clearview AI isn’t exactly a household name, a background might come in handy. It is an American company that has “scraped” (i.e. digitally collected) more than 20 billion images of people’s faces from publicly available information on the internet and social media platforms around the world. around the world to create an online database. The company uses this database to provide a service that allows customers to upload an image of a person to its app, which is then checked for a match against all images in the database. The app produces a list of images that have similar characteristics to the photo provided by the client, along with a link to the websites where those images originated. Clearview describes its business as “building a secure world, one face at a time.”
The catch with this soothing ointment is that the people whose images make up the database were not told that their photographs were being collected or used in this way and they certainly never consented to their use in this way. Hence the action of the ICO.
Most of us had never heard of Clearview until January 2021, when Kashmir Hill, a fine-tech journalist, revealed its existence in the New York Times. It was founded by a tech entrepreneur named Hoan Ton-That and Richard Schwartz, who had been an aide to Rudy Giuliani when he was mayor of New York and still, uh, respectable. The idea was that Ton-That would oversee the creation of a powerful facial recognition app while Schwartz would use his bulging Rolodex to drum up commercial interest.
It didn’t take long for Schwartz to realize that American law enforcement would be at it like ravenous wolves. According to Hill’s report, the Indiana Police Department was the company’s first customer. In February 2019, he solved a case in 20 minutes. Two men had fought in a park, which ended with a bullet in the stomach of the other. A bystander recorded the crime on a smartphone, so police had a photo of the shooter’s face to browse Clearview’s app. They immediately got a match. The man appeared in a video someone posted on social media and his name appeared in a caption in the music video. Bingo!
Clearview’s marketing pitch was featured in the Law Enforcement Gallery: a two-page spread, with the left-hand page dominated by the slogan “Stop looking. Start Solving” in what looks like 95 point Helvetica Bold. Below would be a list of yearly subscription options – ranging from $10,000 for five users to $250,000 for 500. But the kicker was that there was always a subscription option somewhere. test that an individual officer could use to see if the thing worked.
The underlying strategy was shrewd. Sell to corporations inasmuch as outside companies is difficult. But if you can get even a relatively junior insider to try your stuff and find it useful, then you’re halfway to a sale. This is how Peter Thiel got the Pentagon to buy data analysis software from his company Palantir. He first persuaded mid-ranking military officers to try it, knowing they would eventually tell their superiors about it. inside. And guess what? Thiel was an early investor in Clearview.
The number of the company’s customers is unclear. Internal company documents leaked to BuzzFeed in 2020 suggested that up to that time, individuals associated with 2,228 law enforcement agencies, companies and institutions had created accounts and collectively made nearly 500,000 searches – all tracked and logged by the company. In the United States, the bulk of institutional purchases came from local and state police departments. Overseas, leaked documents suggested Clearview had expanded to at least 26 countries outside the US, including the UK, where (possibly unauthorized) research by people at the Met, National Crime Agency and police forces in Northamptonshire, North Yorkshire, Suffolk, Surrey and Hampshire were recorded by Clearview servers.
Reacting to the ICO fine, the law firm representing Clearview said the fine was “wrong in law” as the company no longer does business in the UK and is “not subject to the jurisdiction of the ICO”. We’ll see. But what is not disputed is that many of the images in the company’s database are of social media users who are most likely in the UK and have not given consent. So congratulations for the ICO.
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