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Apple Just Disabled Clearview AI's iPhone App For Breaking Its Rules On Distribution

A BuzzFeed News analysis of Clearview AI’s app for Apple’s mobile operating system found that the company had been violating the iPhone maker’s rules to distribute its apps to law enforcement agencies and other customers.

Last updated on February 28, 2020, at 4:25 p.m. ET

Posted on February 28, 2020, at 3:08 p.m. ET

Amr Alfiky / The New York Times/

Clearview AI CEO Hoan Ton-That

Apple has disabled the iOS application of Clearview AI — the facial recognition company that claims to have amassed a database of billions of photos and has worked with thousands of organizations around the world — after BuzzFeed News determined that the New York–based startup had been violating the iPhone maker’s rules around app distribution.

In distributing its app for Apple devices, Clearview, which BuzzFeed News reported earlier this week has been used by more than 2,200 public and private entities including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the FBI, Macy’s, Walmart, and the NBA, has been sidestepping the Apple App Store, encouraging those who want to use the software to download its app through a program reserved exclusively for developers. In response to an inquiry from BuzzFeed News, Apple investigated and suspended the developer account associated with Clearview, effectively preventing the iOS app from operating.

An Apple spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the Apple Developer Enterprise Program should only be used to distribute apps within a company. Companies that violate that rule, the spokesperson said, are subject to revocation of their accounts. Clearview has 14 days to respond to Apple.

"We are in contact with Apple and working on complying with their terms and conditions," Clearview AI CEO Hoan Ton-That said in a statement. "The app can not be used without a valid Clearview account. A user can download the app, but not perform any searches without proper authorization and credentials."

It's unclear what Ton-That means by authorization and credentials. As BuzzFeed News first reported on Thursday, organizations from local police officers to employees at retailers, banks, private investigation firms, and other corporate entities were allowed to sign up and use the facial recognition tool. Clearview's tech can be used through mobile apps on iOS and Android as well as through desktop computer software.

Apple’s Enterprise Developer Program rules say that organizations “may not use, distribute or otherwise make Your Internal Use Applications available to any third parties in any way.” Erik Johnson, an iOS researcher, told BuzzFeed News that Clearview’s behavior represents a clear rule violation.

“This is definitely a violation [of Apple’s Enterprise Developer Program rules],” Johnson said, “because they’re distributing it to their customers, which Apple does not like people doing.”

Clearview AI is not the first company to violate Apple’s Enterprise Developer Program terms of service. After Facebook used the program to distribute a "research" app to track teenagers' online habits, Apple revoked Facebook's enterprise license, which allowed it to participate in the program. Apple did the same thing to Google when it used the program to an app called Screenwise Meter, which monitored iPhone activity.

Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That has not been shy about publicly promoting Clearview’s iOS mobile app, which violates Apple’s terms of service. In several TV interviews, Ton-That has performed live Clearview demos on an iPhone.

Will Strafach, the founder and CEO of Guardian Firewall, an iOS security app, said he doesn't see any way Clearview can remedy its situation with Apple given the startup's clear flouting of the rules.

"I am wary of this ability Apple wields to block folks from running what they choose on their own devices, yet I doubt many will shed a tear in cases like this or like Facebook 'Research' — both cases where technology is being used to do harm," Strafach said.

BuzzFeed News’ FinCEN Files investigation exposed massive financial corruption on a historic global scale. Want to support our journalism? Become a BuzzFeed News member.

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