As legal pressures and US lawmaker scrutiny mounts, Clearview AI, the facial recognition company that claims to have a database of more than 3 billion photos scraped from websites and social media, is looking to grow around the world.
A document obtained via a public records request reveals that Clearview has been touting a “rapid international expansion” to prospective clients using a map that highlights how it either has expanded, or plans to expand, to at least 22 more countries, some of which have committed human rights abuses.
The document, part of a presentation given to the North Miami Police Department in November 2019, includes the United Arab Emirates, a country historically hostile to political dissidents, and Qatar and Singapore, the penal codes of which criminalize homosexuality.
Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That declined to explain whether Clearview is currently working in these countries or hopes to work in them. He did confirm that the company, which had previously claimed that it was working with 600 law enforcement agencies, has relationships with two countries on the map.
“It’s deeply alarming that they would sell this technology in countries with such a terrible human rights track record."
“Clearview is focused on doing business in USA and Canada,” Ton-That said. “Many countries from around the world have expressed interest in Clearview.”
Albert Fox Cahn, a fellow at New York University and the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, told BuzzFeed News that he was disturbed by the possibility that Clearview may be taking its technology abroad.
“It’s deeply alarming that they would sell this technology in countries with such a terrible human rights track record, enabling potentially authoritarian behavior by other nations,” he said.
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Clearview has made headlines in past weeks for a facial recognition technology that it claims includes a growing database of some 3 billion photos scraped from social media sites like Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, and for misrepresenting its work with law enforcement by falsely claiming a role in the arrest of a terrorism suspect. The company, which has received cease-and-desist orders from Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook argues that it has a First Amendment right to harvest data from social media.
“There is also a First Amendment right to public information,” Ton-That told CBS News Wednesday. “So the way we have built our system is to only take publicly available information and index it that way.”
Cahn dismissed Ton-That’s argument, describing it as “more about public relations than it is about the law.”
“No court has ever found the First Amendment gives a constitutional right to use publicly available information for facial recognition,” Cahn said. “Just because Clearview may have a right to scrape some of this data, that doesn’t mean that they have an immunity from lawsuits from those of us whose information is being sold without our consent.”
Scott Drury, a lawyer representing a plaintiff suing Clearview in Illinois for violating a state law on biometric data collection, agreed. “Clearview’s conduct violates citizens’ constitutional rights in numerous ways, including by interfering with citizens’ right to access the courts,” he told BuzzFeed News. “The issue is not limited to scraping records, but rather whether a private company may scrape records with the intent of performing biometric scans and selling that data to the government.”
“Clearview’s conduct violates citizens’ constitutional rights in numerous ways."
Potentially more problematic is Clearview’s inclusion of nine European Union countries — among them Italy, Greece, and the Netherlands — on its expansion map. These countries have strict privacy protections under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a 2016 law that requires businesses to protect the personal data and privacy of EU citizens. Joseph Jerome, former policy counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology and current Director of Multistate Policy at Common Sense Media, said it was unclear whether Clearview AI's technology would violate the GDPR.
Jerome said that GDPR protects any information that could be used to identify a person — biometric data included — but that the EU made exceptions for law enforcement and national security. Clearview also highlighted other non-EU European countries on its map that it hoped to do business with, including the United Kingdom and Ukraine.
Beyond the map — which also points to plans to expand to Brazil, Colombia, and Nigeria — Clearview has boasted about its exploits abroad. Its website has a large testimonial from a “detective constable in the sex crimes unit” in “Canadian law enforcement” who claims that “Clearview is hands-down the best thing that has happened to victim identification in the last 10 years.” When asked, Ton-That declined to identify the detective or the agency they serve.
Clearview and Ton-That have on occasion exaggerated the company's business relationships, and the presentation sent to North Miami police has a few misrepresentations, including two examples in which it suggested that it was used in the investigation of crimes in New York. An NYPD spokesperson previously denied that the department has any relationship with the company and said that the software was not used in either investigation.
Clearview AI has also encouraged law enforcement to test its facial recognition tool in unusual situations, such as identifying dead bodies. The presentation shows graphic images of a dead man and mugshots of a person whom Clearview claimed matched the deceased victim.
Clearview AI has been aggressively promoting its service to US law enforcement. It has suggested that police officers “run wild” with the tool, encouraging them to test it on friends, family, and celebrities. Emails obtained via a public record request show the company challenging police in Appleton, Wisconsin, to run 100 searches a week.
“Investigators who do 100+ Clearview searches have the best chances of successfully solving crimes with Clearview in our experience,” the email said. “It’s the best way to thoroughly test the technology. You never know when a search will turn up a match.”
There are currently no federal laws that restrict facial recognition or scraping biometric data from the internet. On Thursday, the House Committee on Homeland Security will hold a hearing to examine the Department of Homeland Security's use facial recognition technology. Ton-That has previously said Clearview is working with DHS.
On Wednesday, Facebook told BuzzFeed News that it had sent multiple letters to Clearview AI to clarify the social network's policies and request information about what the startup was doing. In those letters, Facebook, which owns Instagram, asked that Clearview cease and desist from using any data, images, or media from its social networking sites. Facebook board member Peter Thiel is an investor in Clearview.
“Scraping people’s information violates our policies, which is why we’ve demanded that Clearview stop accessing or using information from Facebook or Instagram," a Facebook spokesperson said. A spokesperson for Thiel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Joseph Jerome is the Director of Multistate Policy at Common Sense Media. An earlier version of this post misstated his job title.
The House Committee on Homeland Security will hold the hearing on facial recognition. An earlier version of this post misstated the committee.