[‘It’s creepy’: The secretive company co-founded by an Aust…


The company soon changed its name to Clearview AI and began marketing to law enforcement. That was when the company got its first round of funding from outside investors: Thiel and Kirenaga Partners. Among other things, Thiel was famous for secretly financing Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit that bankrupted the popular website Gawker. Both Thiel and Ton-That had been the subject of negative articles by Gawker.

“In 2017, Peter gave a talented young founder $US200,000 [$291,000], which two years later converted to equity in Clearview AI,” said Jeremiah Hall, Thiel’s spokesman. “That was Peter’s only contribution; he is not involved in the company.”

Even after a second funding round in 2019, Clearview remains tiny, having raised $US7 million ($10.2m) from investors, according to Pitchbook, a website that tracks investments in startups. The company declined to confirm the amount.

In February, the Indiana State Police started experimenting with Clearview. They solved a case within 20 minutes of using the app. Two men had gotten into a fight in a park, and it ended when one shot the other in the stomach. A bystander recorded the crime on a phone, so police had a still of the gunman’s face to run through Clearview’s app.

They immediately got a match: The man appeared in a video that someone had posted on social media, and his name was included in a caption on the video. “He did not have a driver’s license and hadn’t been arrested as an adult, so he wasn’t in government databases,” said Chuck Cohen, an Indiana State Police captain at the time.

The man was arrested and charged; Cohen said he probably wouldn’t have been identified without the ability to search social media for his face. The Indiana State Police became Clearview’s first paying customer, according to the company. (Police declined to comment beyond saying that they tested Clearview’s app.)

Clearview deployed current and former Republican officials to approach police forces, offering free trials and annual licenses for as little as $US2000 ($2900). Schwartz tapped his political connections to help make government officials aware of the tool, according to Ton-That. (“I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to help Hoan build Clearview into a mission-driven organisation that’s helping law enforcement protect children and enhance the safety of communities across the country,” Schwartz said through a spokeswoman.)

The company’s main contact for customers was Jessica Medeiros Garrison, who managed Luther Strange’s Republican campaign for Alabama attorney general. Brandon Fricke, an NFL agent engaged to Fox Nation host Tomi Lahren, said in a financial disclosure report during a congressional campaign in California that he was a “growth consultant” for the company. (Clearview said that it was a brief, unpaid role and that the company had enlisted Democrats to help market its product as well.)

The company’s most effective sales technique was offering 30-day free trials to officers, who then encouraged their acquisition departments to sign up and praised the tool to officers from other police departments at conferences and online, according to the company and documents provided by police departments in response to public-record requests. Ton-That finally had his viral hit.

In July, a detective in Clifton, New Jersey, urged his captain in an email to buy the software because it was “able to identify a suspect in a matter of seconds”. During the department’s free trial, Clearview had identified shoplifters, an Apple Store thief and a good Samaritan who had punched out a man threatening people with a knife.

Photos “could be covertly taken with telephoto lens and input into the software, without ‘burning’ the surveillance operation,” the detective wrote in the email, provided to the Times by two researchers, Beryl Lipton of MuckRock and Freddy Martinez of Open the Government. They discovered Clearview late last year while looking into how local police departments are using facial recognition.

According to a Clearview sales presentation reviewed by the Times, the app helped identify a range of individuals: a person who was accused of sexually abusing a child whose face appeared in the mirror of someone’s else gym photo, the person behind a string of mailbox thefts in Atlanta, a John Doe found dead on an Alabama sidewalk, and suspects in multiple identity fraud cases at banks.

In Gainesville, Florida, Detective Sergeant Nick Ferrara heard about Clearview last year when it advertised on CrimeDex, a group email list for investigators who specialise in financial crimes. He said he had previously relied solely on a state-provided facial recognition tool, FACES, which draws from more than 30 million Florida mug shots and Department of Motor Vehicle photos.

Detective Sergeant Nick Ferrara of the Gainesville Police Department, who said he had used Clearview's app to identify dozens of suspects.

Detective Sergeant Nick Ferrara of the Gainesville Police Department, who said he had used Clearview’s app to identify dozens of suspects.Credit: Charlotte Kesl/The New York Times

Ferrara found Clearview’s app superior, he said. Its nationwide database of images is much larger, and unlike FACES, Clearview’s algorithm doesn’t require photos of people looking straight at the camera.

“With Clearview, you can use photos that aren’t perfect,” Ferrara said. “A person can be wearing a hat or glasses, or it can be a profile shot or partial view of their face.”

He uploaded his own photo to the system, and it brought up his Venmo page. He ran photos from old, dead-end cases and identified more than 30 suspects. In September, the Gainesville Police Department paid $US10,000 ($14,500) for an annual Clearview license.

Federal law enforcement, including the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, are trying it, as are Canadian law enforcement authorities, according to the company and government officials.

Despite its growing popularity, Clearview avoided public mention until the end of 2019, when Florida prosecutors charged a woman with grand theft after two grills and a vacuum were stolen from an Ace Hardware store in Clermont. She was identified when police ran a still from a surveillance video through Clearview, which led them to her Facebook page. A tattoo visible in the surveillance video and Facebook photos confirmed her identity, according to an affidavit in the case.

‘We’re all screwed’

Ton-That said the tool does not always work. Most of the photos in Clearview’s database are taken at eye level. Much of the material that police upload is from surveillance cameras mounted on ceilings or high on walls.

“They put surveillance cameras too high,” Ton-That lamented. “The angle is wrong for good face recognition.”

Despite that, the company said, its tool finds matches up to 75 per cent of the time. But it is unclear how often the tool delivers false matches because it has not been tested by an independent party such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a US federal agency that rates the performance of facial recognition algorithms.

“We have no data to suggest this tool is accurate,” said Clare Garvie, a researcher at Georgetown University’s Centre on Privacy and Technology, who has studied the government’s use of facial recognition. “The larger the database, the larger the risk of misidentification because of the doppelganger effect. They’re talking about a massive database of random people they’ve found on the internet.”

But current and former law enforcement officials said the app is effective. “For us, the testing was whether it worked or not,” said Cohen, the former Indiana State Police captain.

One reason that Clearview is catching on is that its service is unique. That’s because Facebook and other social media sites prohibit people from scraping users’ images; Clearview is violating the sites’ terms of service.

“A lot of people are doing it,” Ton-That shrugged. “Facebook knows.”

Jay Nancarrow, a Facebook spokesman, said the company was reviewing the situation with Clearview and “will take appropriate action if we find they are violating our rules”.

Thiel, the Clearview investor, sits on Facebook’s board. Nancarrow declined to comment on Thiel’s personal investments.

Some law enforcement officials said they didn’t realise the photos they uploaded were being sent to and stored on Clearview’s servers. Clearview tries to preempt concerns with an FAQ document given to would-be clients that says its customer support employees won’t look at the photos that police upload.

Clearview also hired Paul Clement, a S. solicitor general under President George W. Bush, to assuage concerns about the app’s legality.

In an August memo that Clearview provided to potential customers, including the Atlanta Police Department and the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, Clement said law enforcement agencies “do not violate the federal Constitution or relevant existing state biometric and privacy laws when using Clearview for its intended purpose”.

Clement, now a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, wrote that authorities don’t have to tell defendants that they were identified via Clearview as long as it isn’t the sole basis for getting a warrant to arrest them. Clement did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The memo appeared to be effective; the Atlanta police and Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office soon started using Clearview.

Because police upload photos of people they’re trying to identify, Clearview possesses a growing database of individuals who have attracted attention from law enforcement. The company also has the ability to manipulate the results that police see. After the company realised I was asking officers to run my photo through the app, my face was flagged by Clearview’s systems and for a while showed no matches. When asked about this, Ton-That laughed and called it a “software bug”.

“It’s creepy what they’re doing, but there will be many more of these companies. There is no monopoly on math,” said Al Gidari, a privacy professor at Stanford Law School. “Absent a very strong federal privacy law, we’re all screwed.”

Ton-That said his company used only publicly available images. If you change a privacy setting in Facebook so that search engines can’t link to your profile, your Facebook photos won’t be included in the database, he said.

But if your profile has already been scraped, it is too late. The company keeps all the images it has scraped even if they are later deleted or taken down, though Ton-That said the company was working on a tool that would let people request that images be removed if they had been taken down from the website of origin.

Woodrow Hartzog, a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University in Boston, sees Clearview as the latest proof that facial recognition should be banned.

“We’ve relied on industry efforts to self-police and not embrace such a risky technology, but now those dams are breaking because there is so much money on the table,” Hartzog said. “I don’t see a future where we harness the benefits of face recognition technology without the crippling abuse of the surveillance that comes with it. The only way to stop it is to ban it.”

Where everybody knows your name

During a recent interview at Clearview’s offices in a WeWork location in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighbourhood, Ton-That demonstrated the app on himself. He took a selfie and uploaded it. The app pulled up 23 photos of him. In one, he is shirtless and lighting a cigarette while covered in what looks like blood.

Ton-That then took my photo with the app. The “software bug” had been fixed, and now my photo returned numerous results, dating back a decade, including photos of myself that I had never seen before. When I used my hand to cover my nose and the bottom of my face, the app still returned seven correct matches for me.

Police officers and Clearview’s investors predict that its app will eventually be available to the public.

Ton-That said he was reluctant. “There’s always going to be a community of bad people who will misuse it,” he said.

Even if Clearview doesn’t make its app publicly available, a copycat company might, now that the taboo is broken. Searching someone by face could become as easy as Googling a name. Strangers would be able to listen in on sensitive conversations, take photos of the participants and know personal secrets. Someone walking down the street would be immediately identifiable — and his or her home address would be only a few clicks away. It would herald the end of public anonymity.

Asked about the implications of bringing such a power into the world, Ton-That seemed taken aback.

“I have to think about that,” he said. “Our belief is that this is the best use of the technology.”

The New York Times

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