Clearview AI, the facial recognition company that claims to have scraped over 3 billion photos from social media to power its face-matching tool, is now facing questions from Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey about recent claims that it’s developing a digital contact tracing tool for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Clearview AI CEO Hoan Ton-That claimed in a recent NBC interview that the company is in talks with “federal and state” authorities about developing a tool that would use facial recognition to track where a person diagnosed with COVID-19 has traveled and whom they may have come in contact with. Clearview has not identified any of these authorities nor the length of the agreements or contracts it has signed or is seeking. It’s also unclear how Clearview’s facial recognition tools would aid in contact tracing efforts or how the company would obtain pictures of people diagnosed with the disease and track their movements at scale.
In a letter to Ton-That, Markey asked Clearview to name the government agencies it claims to be communicating with and to disclose any agreements it may have reached with them. He also asked if Clearview is planning to use real-time facial recognition to power its contact tracing tool. BuzzFeed News previously reported that Clearview had developed a sister company called Insight Camera that partnered with at least two organizations to do real-time facial recognition and surveillance.
“Technology has an important role to play in mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic, but this health crisis cannot justify using unreliable surveillance tools that could undermine our privacy rights,” the letter reads. “Given that your responses to my previous letter failed to address ongoing concerns about your product — particularly around accuracy and bias testing — any plans to deploy it widely to fight the coronavirus could further increase Clearview's threat to the public's privacy.”
In response to a detailed list of questions, Ton-That told BuzzFeed News: “We just received the letter from Senator Markey, for whom we have great respect. We will be responding to him directly.” Asked by BuzzFeed News, Ton-That did not comment on which state or federal authorities the company is working with.
"This health crisis cannot justify using unreliable surveillance tools that could undermine our privacy rights.”
The US is early in its efforts to use digital contact tracing — which, broadly speaking, is any piece of technology or mobile app that can be used to see where a COVID-19 patient has gone and whom they may have infected. States like Utah and North Dakota have already introduced contact tracing. Technology giants Apple and Google are working on a software framework that would make smartphone contact tracing apps distributed by public health agencies more accurate and privacy-focused.
A BuzzFeed News investigation from February revealed that Clearview AI’s facial recognition tool has already been used by hundreds of public agencies, police departments, and private companies throughout the US and around the world. Internal documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News listed about 2,900 institutions that have run searches on Clearview's facial recognition tool. The vast majority of these institutions — which included hundreds of police departments, “friends” of the company, and private companies like Kohl's and Bank of America — used free trials of Clearview’s software.
In some cases, representatives for the police departments and companies using the facial recognition tool didn’t even know that their employees had used or were using it.
“Clearview has failed to demonstrate that it can be trusted to protect Americans’ privacy,” Markey said in a statement. “I’m concerned that if this company becomes involved in our nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, its invasive technology will become normalized, and that could spell the end of our ability to move anonymously and freely in public.”
The Massachusetts senator has sent two previous letters to Clearview, most recently in March when he asked about the company’s relationships abroad after BuzzFeed News reported on its software’s use in countries including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Markey has previously said that he found some of Clearview’s responses to his prior questions “unacceptable.”
At the federal level, Clearview AI's facial recognition tool has been used by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, two of several entities that had paid relationships with the company, according to data seen by BuzzFeed News.
According to GovSpend, a government spending database, Clearview also signed new clients in December, including a $50,000 contract with the US Air Force, a $24,000 contract with the Texas Department of Public Safety, and a $2,000 contract with the borough of South Plainfield, New Jersey, as well as a $5,000 contract with the North Dakota attorney general in January.
Clearview AI’s tool has also been widely used by state and local police departments, like the New York State Police, the Miami Police Department, the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office, the Philadelphia Police Department, and the Indiana State Police.
“What Clearview is doing is the perfect example of a company ... blatantly trying to exploit this crisis to sell dangerous, invasive, and utterly ineffective surveillance software to the government,” Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future, told BuzzFeed News.