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The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It

The New York Times recently published a piece on the start-up Clearview AI. Find it here.

Clearview AI, founded by Australian software developer Hoan Ton-That and former aide to Rudolph Giuliani Richard Schwartz and funded by Facebook investor Peter Thiel, revolutionized facial recognition software (as well as the use of this technology) by turning to social media to build its database. The service “scrapes” images and videos uploaded to services such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and Venmo for faces, adding them to its database of about 3 billion pictures. From there, a neural net creates vectors from the facial geometry of each image. When an image is fed into Clearview’s tool, the algorithm converts it into vectors and links it to other images in similar “neighborhoods” of images with similar vectors.

The implications of such a technology are unprecedented. Software that could reduce facial recognition to something like a Google search had previously been considered taboo, but Clearview, and its now widespread use by law enforcement agencies, has broken this taboo entirely. While it is not currently commercially available, although plans exist to make it so in the long-term, it began being sold to police departments across the country in February 2019. The appeal of such a technology is clear; cases can be solved in a matter of minutes by simply plugging in an image taken by bystanders, surveillance cameras, or the police themselves into the Clearview system, which returns a series of images linked to info about the people in them.

Despite the benefits to the criminal justice system, if allowed into the wrong hands, Clearview has the potential to obliterate privacy altogether. The easy-to-use, incredibly powerful technology could allow for a surplus of personal information to be granted to every user without any warrant to search. What’s more is that a lack of testing on the technology and disparities in accuracy for certain demographic groups could make the growing use of the technology even more problematic. As Clearview continues to be used, both legal challenges from the companies from which it scrapes data and perhaps legislation from the government will determine the implications of this technology.

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