Facial recognition companies should look in the mirror | John Naughton

LEarlier this week, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) fined a small tech company called Clearview AI £7.5m for “using images of people in the UK United Kingdom and elsewhere, collected from the web and social media to create a global online database that could be used for facial recognition.” The ICO also issued an enforcement notice, ordering the company to stop collecting and use the personal data of UK residents that is publicly available on the internet and to remove the data of UK residents from its systems.

Since Clearview AI isn’t exactly a household name, some background might be helpful. It is an American team that has “scraped” (meaning digitally collected) more than 20 billion images of people’s faces from publicly available information on the Internet and social media platforms around the world to create an online database. The company uses this database to provide a service that allows customers to upload an image of a person to their app, which is then checked to see if it matches all the images in the database. The application produces a list of images that have characteristics similar to the client-supplied photo, along with a link to the websites those images came from. Clearview describes its business as “building a secure world, one face at a time.”

The fly in this soothing salve is that the people whose images make up the database were not informed that their photographs were being collected or used in this way and certainly never consented to their use in this way. Hence the action of the ICO.

Most of us had never heard of Clearview until January 2021 when Kashmir Hill, a tech journalist, revealed its existence in the New York Times. It was founded by a tech entrepreneur named Hoan Ton-That and Richard Schwartz, who had been an aide to Rudy Giuliani when he was mayor of New York and still respectable. The idea was that Ton-That would oversee the creation of a powerful facial recognition app while Schwartz would use his bulky Rolodex to drum up commercial interest.

It didn’t take long for Schwartz to realize that US law enforcement agencies would go at it like ravening wolves. According to Hill’s report, the Indiana Police Department was the company’s first customer. In February 2019 he solved a case in 20 minutes. Two men had gotten into a fight in a park, which ended with one shooting the other in the stomach. A bystander recorded the crime on a smartphone, so police had a still image of the gunman’s face to run through the Clearview 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 for the video clip. Bingo!

Clearview’s marketing pitch played into the law enforcement gallery: a two-page spread, with the left page dominated by the tagline “Stop Looking. Start Solving” in what appears to be 95 point Helvetica Bold. Below that would be a list of yearly subscription options, from $10,000 for five users to $250,000 for 500. But the killer blow was that there was always somewhere a trial subscription option that an individual officer could use to see if it worked.

The underlying strategy was cunning. Sell ​​to corporations via corporations from abroad is difficult. But if you can get insiders, even if you’re relatively young, to test your stuff and find it useful, then you’re halfway to a sale. It’s how Peter Thiel got the Pentagon to buy his company’s data analysis software Palantir. He first persuaded mid-ranking military officers to try it out, knowing that they would eventually make the pitch to their superiors. from inside. And guess what? Thiel was one of the first investors in Clearview.

It is not clear how many clients the company has. Internal company documents leaked to BuzzFeed in 2020 suggested that, to that point, individuals associated with 2,228 law enforcement agencies, businesses, and institutions had created accounts and collectively conducted nearly 500,000 searches, all tracked and registered by the company. In the US, most institutional purchases came from state and local police departments. Overseas, the leaked documents suggested that Clearview had expanded to at least 26 countries outside the US, including the UK, where (perhaps unauthorized) searches by people at the Met, the National Agency Against Crime and police forces in Northamptonshire, North Yorkshire, Suffolk, Clearview servers recorded Surrey and Hampshire.

In reaction to the ICO fine, the law firm representing Clearview said the fine was “wrong as a matter of law” because the company no longer does business in the UK and is “not subject to UK jurisdiction.” laic”. We’ll see. But what is not in dispute is that many of the images in the company’s database are from social media users who are definitely in the UK and who did not consent. So two cheers for the ICO.

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