Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Facial Recognition Pandora’s Box Has Been Opened. Now What?

Kashmir Hill has continued to report on Clearview AI after breaking the news of its existence early last year. Today, for the New York Times Magazine, she shared an update on the company:

It seemed entirely possible that Clearview AI would be sued, legislated or shamed out of existence. But that didn’t happen. With no federal law prohibiting or even regulating the use of facial recognition, Clearview did not, for the most part, change its practices. Nor did it implode. While it shut down private companies’ accounts, it continued to acquire government customers. Clearview’s most effective sales tool, at first, was a free trial it offered to anyone with a law-enforcement-affiliated email address, along with a low, low price: You could access Clearview AI for as little as $2,000 per year. Most comparable vendors — whose products are not even as extensive — charged six figures. The company later hired a seasoned sales director who raised the price. “Our growth rate is crazy,” Hoan Ton-That, Clearview’s chief executive, said.

Clearview has now raised $17 million and, according to PitchBook, is valued at nearly $109 million. As of January 2020, it had been used by at least 600 law-enforcement agencies; the company says it is now up to 3,100. […]

Any way you cut it, this is disturbing. The public’s reaction to news of Clearview’s existence was overwhelmingly negative, but police saw that article as an advertisement.

Shameless companies will not change from public pressure.


Clearview is now fighting 11 lawsuits in the state [Illinois], including the one filed by the A.C.L.U. in state court. In response to the challenges, Clearview quickly removed any photos it determined came from Illinois, based on geographical information embedded in the files it scraped — but if that seemed on the surface like a capitulation, it wasn’t.

Clearview assumes that it can scrape, store, and transform anything in the public realm unless it is certain it would be prohibited from doing so. Data is inherently valuable to the company, so it is incentivized to capture as much as possible.

But that means there is likely a whole bunch of stuff in its systems that it cannot legally use but has no way of knowing that. For example, there are surely plenty of photos taken in Illinois that do not have GPS coordinates in their metadata. Why would any of those be cleared from Clearview’s inventory? Clearview also allows people to request removal from its systems, but there are surely photographs from those people that are not positively matched, so the company has no way of identifying them as part of a removal request.

This is an aside, but that raises an interesting question: if images scraped without legal consent were used to train Clearview’s machine learning models, is it truly possible to remove those illegal images?

If Clearview were even slightly more ethical, it would only scrape the images it has explicit permission to access. I would still disagree with that on its face, but at least it would be done with permission. But this is the perhaps inevitable consequence of the Uber-like fuck your rules philosophy — as Hill writes, it is a “gamble that the rules would successfully be bent in their favor”.

Sadly, that Silicon Valley indifference to legality and ethics will not remain localized. There is no way to know for certain that Clearview has complied with the Privacy Commissioner’s recommendation that the company must delete all collected data on Canadians.

Hill digs into Clearview’s origin story, too, which of course involves Peter Thiel and someone who is even more detestable:

After I broke the news about Clearview AI, BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post reported that Ton-That and his company had ties to the far right and to a notorious conservative provocateur named Charles Johnson. I heard the same about Johnson from multiple sources. So I emailed him. At first, he was hesitant to talk to me, insisting he would do so only off the record, because he was still frustrated about the last time he talked to a New York Times journalist, when the media columnist David Carr profiled him in 2014.

“Provacateur” is an awfully kind description of Johnson, though Hill expands further in the successive paragraphs. Just so we’re clear here, Johnson is a hateful subreddit in human form; a moron attached to a megaphone. Johnson has a lengthy rap sheet of crimes against intelligence, decency, facts, and ethics. He has denied the Holocaust, and did Jacob Wohl’s dumb bit before Wohl was old enough to vote.

Johnson is, apparently, a sort of unofficial cofounder of Clearview, who agreed to talk with Hill apparently because he thought it would rehabilitate his image. Reading between the lines, as of earlier this month he still held shares in a company that seeks to eradicate privacy on a global scale, so I am not sure how that is supposed to make me think more highly of him.

I thought this was amusing:

Johnson believes that giving this superpower only to the police is frightening — that it should be offered to anyone who would use it for good. In his mind, a world without strangers would be a friendlier, nicer world, because all people would be accountable for their actions.

I thought “cancel culture” was a scourge; I guess some fairly terrible people want to automate it.

Let’s not give this “superpower” to anyone.