social media apps on a smartphone

Internet giants reject controversial facial-recognition start-up

Image credit: Dreamstime

Google and its subsidiary YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have demanded that Clearview AI stops scraping their platforms of photos of peoples’ faces to train its facial-recognition tools.

The start-up was exposed in a recent New York Times report. Clearview AI is a start-up which offers facial-recognition tools based on three billion photographs scraped from millions of online platforms. This allows it to match an image of an individual to faces stored in its enormous database, and in doing so bring up data associated with that person such as location and social media profile. The start-up is focused on offering its services for law-enforcement purposes and is working with more than 600 police departments.

Now some of the internet’s biggest players have demanded that Clearview stops harvesting photos from their platforms without permission.

According to reports, Twitter, Facebook, Venmo and Google (and its subsidiary YouTube) all sent cease-and-desist letters to Clearview in January, arguing that the start-up violated their terms of service. Google has requested that Clearview deletes all photos stored in its giant database acquired from its platforms, while a Facebook spokesperson said that the company had sent multiple letters to Clearview laying out its demands and asking for further details.

Clearview AI investor Peter Thiel – who is also co-founder of Palantir Technologies – belongs to Facebook’s board of directors.

Clearview AI CEO Hoan Ton-That has stated in an interview with CBS that the company has a “first amendment right to public information” and compared its modus operandi of scraping photos from across the internet to Google’s public web-crawling to generate accurate search results: “Google can pull in information from all different websites. So if it’s public and it’s out there and could be inside Google search engine, it can be inside ours as well.”

Ton-That added that Clearview AI’s tool is 99.6 per cent accurate, even when the reference image is blurred or partially obscured. However, a BuzzFeed News investigation – which found that the company may have lied to the New York Police Department about its tool – casts possible doubt on this claim.

Google rejected the comparison as “misleading”, with a spokesperson saying that most websites want to be included in its search results (with the option of opting out) and webmasters can control what information is included in these results.

The company is also facing legal action in Illinois, brought by a resident who alleges that Clearview has broken the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (which requires explicit consent for companies to collect biometric data) and demands that the company deletes any data belonging to the plaintiff and other Illinois residents. The lawsuit describes Clearview AI’s practices as “insidious encroachment on an individuals’ liberty”.

The use of Clearview AI software by law enforcement was banned in New Jersey by the state AG soon after the publication of the New York Times report.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles