A controversial face recognition company that the police, the national government and – most recently – the Ukrainian military – now plans to offer to its technology bank and other private businesses.
Hon Ton, co-founder and CEO of Clearview AI, revealed plans to the Associated Press on Friday to clarify a recent federal court filing that suggested the company was for sale.
“We have no plans to sell the company,” he said. Instead, he said, the New York startup wants to launch a new business venture to compete with the likes of Amazon and Microsoft in verifying people’s identities using facial recognition.
The new “consent-based” product will use Clearview’s algorithm to verify a person’s face, but it will not involve the growing truth of nearly 20 billion images, which Ton-That says is reserved for law enforcement use. This type of ID check that can be used to verify bank transactions or for other commercial purposes is the “least controversial use” of facial recognition, he said.
This is in contrast to the business practice for which Clearview is best known: a huge collection of images posted on Facebook, YouTube and elsewhere on the universally accessible Internet.
Regulators from Australia to Canada, France and Italy have taken steps to prevent Clearview from pulling people’s faces on the face recognition engine without their consent. So there are tech giants like Google and Facebook. Earlier this year, a group of U.S. lawmakers warned that “Clearview AI’s technology could reveal the identity of the public in the United States.”
Despite opposition from lawmakers, regulators, privacy lawyers and websites that scrap it for data, Clearview continues to enter into new agreements with the police department and other government agencies. Meanwhile, its growing database has helped Clearview’s artificial intelligence technology to learn and grow more accurately.
One of its biggest known federal agreements with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – specifically its investigative arm, has used technology to track both victims and perpetrators of child sexual abuse. In March, Clearview began offering its services to the Ukrainian military for free, in part using Clearview’s archive of nearly 2 billion photos scrapped from the Russian social media website Vikontakte to help identify dead Russian soldiers.
“They have been able to identify the bodies, even with facial damage,” Ton-That said Friday.
The official minutes of a March 17 hearing in federal court in Chicago stated that Clearview AI was “considering selling the app platform to other companies,” citing a lawyer representing the company in a lawsuit alleging violations of Illinois digital privacy. Law
The minutes added that there would be further discussions on “Clearview’s app sales” after the company released more details to the plaintiffs. The Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act allows customers to sue a company that does not allow them to collect data, such as face and fingerprints.
Ton-Thatt said the minutes incorrectly relayed that the company was trying to tell the judge about potentially expanding its business outside of law enforcement use.
“We tell the court we’re exploring the idea,” he said Friday, referring to the company’s earlier claims that it was only selling its services to law enforcement.
When asked about future commercial applications during an interview with the AP in late February, Ton-That emphasizes his company’s ongoing focus on policing.
“We’re really focused on law enforcement right now,” he said, describing how the company’s mission evolved from commercial applications to help solve crime.
“We’ve seen a variety of uses: creating security, ID checks, even hotels, hospitality,” he said. “But when we gave it to law enforcement, we saw so much amazing success where they could identify so many victims. It was a kind of no-brainer at the time to really focus on the crime or its perpetrators.”
He added at the time that if the company moved to another job, it would inform the public and the court about it. In a document reported to the Washington Post in February, he downplayed what Clearview described as “high targets” to potential investors.
The Post says that since December, the company’s financial presentation has offered a variety of potential commercial uses of Clearview technology, including monitoring “gig economy” employees or giving companies “real-time alerts” if some people are identified, and proudly – the image database. Which is becoming so large that “almost everyone in the world will be recognizable.”
A lawyer representing activists suing Clearview in California on privacy grounds said Friday that the government is most concerned about the use of technology by its clients to track protesters and immigrants, but that May infringe rights.
“Clearview’s future potential uses seem to be an ongoing goal,” said Sejal Jota, legal director of Just Future Law. “And the scale is terrible.”