Does This Facial Recognition Startup Put Everyone’s Privacy at Risk?

Welcome to the panopticon, everybody

Surveillance cameras
The tech startup Clearview AI offers law enforcement and private security access to a massive database, which has raised concerns among privacy advocates.
Paweł Zdziarski/Creative Commons
By Tobias Carroll / January 18, 2020 3:39 pm

Facial recognition had become a growing part of contemporary life, from social media to international travel. And there’s a convenience that comes along with that that can be appealing: facial recognition can make previously time-consuming tasks pass rapidly, freeing us up to do other things we might enjoy more.

That’s the good part. The bad part? Facial recognition might lead society to a point where privacy no longer exists. This is exemplified by a new report by Kashmir Hill at The New York Times on the technology startup Clearview AI. Hill describes Clearview AI founder Hoan Ton-That as someone who 

invented a tool that could end your ability to walk down the street anonymously, and provided it to hundreds of law enforcement agencies, ranging from local cops in Florida to the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security.

Clearview AI was cited in this news report about the arrest of a shoplifting suspect in Florida, for instance. How did they do it? According to Seminole County deputies, the suspect’s tattoo, as seen in a surveillance video, matched one on Facebook. 

The Times reports that “more than 600 law enforcement agencies have started using Clearview in the past year.” Also in the mix: private security companies, who are also working with Clearview AI.

There are a host of reasons to be wary of this: facial recognition technology itself has come under criticism for flaws in its methodology. Someone with access to a database like Clearview AI’s could use it for malicious purposes, and the Times article also notes that questions exist about the security of the company’s database.

Law enforcement professionals have spoken in support of it, but the technology has promoted wariness from others. Stanford Law School professor Al Gidari told the Times, “It’s creepy what they’re doing, but there will be many more of these companies. There is no monopoly on math.” It’s an unsettling prediction for those concerned with privacy. 

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