The Facial Recognition Company That Scraped Facebook And Instagram Photos Is Developing Surveillance Cameras
Clearview AI is operating a sister entity called Insight Camera that’s been experimenting with live facial recognition, according to documents seen by BuzzFeed News and companies that have used it.
Clearview AI, the secretive company that’s built a database of billions of photos scraped without permission from social media and the web, has been testing its facial recognition software on surveillance cameras and augmented reality glasses, according to documents seen by BuzzFeed News.
Clearview, which claims its software can match a picture of any individual to photos of them that have been posted online, has quietly been working on a surveillance camera with facial recognition capabilities. That device is being developed under a division called Insight Camera, which has been tested by at least two potential clients according to documents.
On its website — which was taken offline after BuzzFeed News requested comment from a Clearview spokesperson — Insight said it offers “the smartest security camera” that is “now in limited preview to select retail, banking and residential buildings.”
After BuzzFeed reached out to inquire about Insight Camera, the entity’s website disappeared.
Insight Camera’s main site had no obvious connection to Clearview, but BuzzFeed News was able to link it to the facial recognition company by comparing the code from Insight and Clearview’s respective log-in pages, which both shared numerous references to Clearview’s servers. This shared code also mentioned something called “Fastlane,” a "checkin app."
Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That and a company spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment about Insight or its work in experimenting with physical devices. After BuzzFeed reached out to inquire about Insight Camera, the entity’s website disappeared.
Despite publicly claiming it is working with law enforcement agencies alone, Clearview has been aggressively pushing its technology into the private sector. As BuzzFeed News first reported, Clearview documents indicated more than 2,200 public and private entities have been credentialed to use its facial recognition software including Macy’s, Kohl’s, the National Basketball Association, and Bank of America.
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Clearview has never publicly mentioned Insight Camera. A list of organizations that had been credentialed to use its app that was viewed by BuzzFeed News showed Clearview had identified two entities experimenting with its surveillance cameras in a category called “has_security_camera_app.”
Those two organizations, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and New York City real estate firm Rudin Management, deployed Insight Camera in trials, BuzzFeed News confirmed. In a statement, UFT, a labor union that represents teachers in New York City public schools, said the technology was “successful” in helping security personnel identify individuals who had made threats against employees so they could be prevented from entering one of its offices.
“We did not access the larger Clearview database,” a spokesperson for UFT told BuzzFeed News. “Instead, we used Insight Camera in a self-contained, closed system that relied exclusively on images generated on site.”
UFT did not say how many photos were in that “closed system,” which it maintained is separate from the database of more than 3 billion photos that Clearview AI said it has scraped from millions of sites including Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Clearview’s desktop software and mobile app allow users to run static photos through a facial recognition system that matches people to existing media in a few seconds, but Insight Camera, according to those that used it, attempted to flag individuals of interest using facial recognition on a live video feed.
A spokesperson for Rudin Management, which has a portfolio of 18 residential and 16 commercial office buildings as well as two condominiums in New York City, confirmed to BuzzFeed News that it had tested Insight cameras.
“We beta test many products to see if they would be additive to our portfolio and tenants,” the spokesperson said. “In this case we decided it was not and we do not currently use the software."
BuzzFeed News discovered Insight after analyzing a copy of Clearview’s web app, which is discoverable to the public, and determining that it contained code for a “security_camera” app. Entities that had access to that security camera app appear to have been able to log in to the Insight Camera website, which was registered last April.
A BuzzFeed News analysis of the Insight Camera site found that it was almost a perfect clone of the code found at Clearview AI’s web page. Though there were some aesthetic differences between the two sites, both appeared to share the same code to communicate with Clearview’s servers.
Although Clearview has recently stated its services are intended for law enforcement, the company has maintained significant interest in the private sector. As BuzzFeed News reported previously, Ton-That had entered his company in a retail technology accelerator in the summer of 2018, before claiming that the company would focus on law enforcement.
A presentation from the company’s early pitches to investors recently reviewed by BuzzFeed News suggests that in early 2018 the company wasn’t focused on law enforcement at all. On one slide, the company named four industries in which it was testing its technology: banking, retail, insurance, and oil. The only mention of government or public entities is in reference to a pilot at an unnamed "major federal agency."
“Banking: The world’s largest bank selected Clearview to provide security background checks for its annual shareholders meeting,” the company wrote on one of its slides. “Retail: Manhattan’s top food retailer has hired CV to provide facial- recognition hardware & software for its supermarket chain.”
Privacy advocate Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights activist group Fight for the Future, said that brick-and-mortar stores are seen as “community spaces” and that one of the most attractive applications for Clearview in the private sector would be screening people as they enter a store to see if they have a criminal record. She remained skeptical of Clearview’s technology.
“They’re claiming that this technology can do all kinds of stuff and institutions are easily dazzled by that,” Greer said. “But it’s relatively new technology for applications like this and it’s totally untested. We know that there are better ways to keep people safe that don’t violate their rights.”
"It’s not something anybody is buying off the shelf, but I can’t deny that it’s in development."
Clearview has also been actively experimenting with wearables with the help of Vuzix, a Rochester, New York–based manufacturer of augmented reality glasses. Clearview data reviewed by BuzzFeed News showed accounts associated with Vuzix ran nearly 300 searches, some as recently as November. Matt Margolis, Vuzix’s director of business development, acknowledged that his company had sent the startup sets of its augmented reality glasses for testing, noting Clearview was one of a few facial recognition developers it had partnered with.
“It’s not something anybody is buying off the shelf, but I can’t deny that it’s in development, though it’s not something we’re selling today,” Margolis told BuzzFeed News. “We do have a number of other partners that use facial recognition, but they don’t do the same thing that Clearview is doing. They’re not using photos that are crawled off the web.”
Vuzix, which counts Intel as a shareholder, initially focused on entertainment and gaming, before moving into “the defense and homeland security markets,” according to a financial filing from last year. On its company blog in February, Vuzix cited the sci-fi film RoboCop, where officers used smartglasses with live facial recognition, as an inspiration, and noted that countries including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates “already screen crowds to match faces against a massive database.”
BuzzFeed News previously reported that Clearview AI had provided its facial recognition technology to entities in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two countries known for their human rights violations. The company previously did not respond to questions about entities that have used its software.
Last week, in an email to BuzzFeed News, Clearview attorney Tor Ekeland said, "There are numerous inaccuracies in this illegally obtained information. As there is an ongoing Federal investigation, we have no further comment."
Margolis, who has seen demos of Clearview, acknowledged that a wearable with facial recognition could be abused with “a lot of negative possibilities,” but noted that systems are only as good as the biometric information on which they rely. He said that Clearview’s technology was accurate on the tests he had seen and called the billions of photos that the company ingested from the web part of the public domain.
"Tech used the right way is the real goal...to keep people safe. You want to find the wrongdoers."
“Tech used the right way is the real goal...to keep people safe,” he said. “You want to find the wrongdoers. It’s not a bad thing for society.”
Code from Clearview AI’s app analyzed by BuzzFeed News also suggested the startup had experimented with tech from RealWear, a Vancouver, Washington–based augmented reality glasses manufacturer. The code included instructions to new users to scan a Clearview QR code to pair its app with a RealWear device. Data viewed by BuzzFeed News showed that accounts associated with RealWear had run more than 70 searches as recently as last month.
In an interview, RealWear CEO Andy Lowery said he had never heard of Clearview before, but found that his company sold the startup a few devices about a year ago. He told BuzzFeed News that RealWear “doesn’t market or sell in any significant way to police forces,” and compared his company to a phone manufacturer like Samsung in that it could not control what applications developers built or put on its devices.
Lowery could not explain why Clearview’s data showed that accounts associated with RealWear had been running searches with the facial recognition technology, but didn’t rule out one of his 115 employees trying the software.
“I haven’t seen any evidence that they’re working with us in any sort of way,” he said. “I don’t even see them selling or reselling anything with our devices.”