You take a picture of a person, upload it and get to see public photos of that person along with links to where those photos appeared. By Kashmir Hill Until recently, Hoan Ton-That's greatest hit was an app that let people put Donald Trump's distinctive yellow hair on their own photos. Then Ton-That did something momentous: He invented a tool that could end your ability to walk down the street anonymously and provided it to hundreds of law enforcement agencies. His tiny company, Clearview AI, devised a groundbreaking facial recognition app. You take a picture of a person, upload it and get to see public photos of that person along with links to where those photos appeared.
Clearview says its software lets authorities plug in photos of people suspected of involvement in crimes and search for other images of their faces from the internet. The company has compiled a massive database of photos by scraping websites, including social-media platforms. Some of the platforms have accused Clearview's scraping efforts of violating their terms of service. Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and Microsoft Corp.'s LinkedIn are among those that have sent the startup cease-and-desist orders. Civil libertarians have raised concerns broadly about the use of facial-recognition by law enforcement, and specifically about Clearview.
If Hoan Ton-That is feeling the pressure, he isn't showing it. Over the last month, fears about facial recognition technology and police surveillance have intensified, all thanks to Ton-That's startup, Clearview AI. First came a front-page investigation in The New York Times, revealing Clearview has been working with law enforcement agencies to match photos of unknown faces to people's online images. Next, cease-and-desist letters rolled in from tech giants Twitter, Google and Facebook. Lawmakers made inquiries and New Jersey enacted a statewide ban on law enforcement using Clearview while it looks into the software.
Controversial facial recognition firm Clearview AI has been found to have extensive ties to far-right individuals and movements. Clearview AI has come under scrutiny for scraping billions of photos from across the internet and storing them in a database for powerful facial recognition services. Privacy activists criticise the practice as the people in those images never gave their consent. "Common law has never recognised a right to privacy for your face," Clearview AI lawyer Tor Ekeland said recently. "It's kind of a bizarre argument to make because [your face is the] most public thing out there."
Clearview AI was founded in 2017 by Richard Schwartz and now-CEO Hoan Ton-That. The company counts Peter Thiel and AngelList founder Naval Ravikant among its investors. Clearview's technology is actually quite simple: Its facial recognition algorithm compares the image of a person's face from security camera footage to an existing database of potential matches. Marketed primarily to law enforcement agencies, the Clearview app allows users to take and upload a picture of a person then view all of the public images of that person as well as links to where those photos were published. Basically, if you're caught on camera anywhere in public, local law enforcement can use that image to mine your entire online presence for information about you, effectively ending any semblance of personal privacy.