|United States, Canada|
Clearview AI is an American technology company that provides facial recognition software, primarily for law enforcement agencies. The company has developed technology that can match faces to a database of more than three billion images scraped from the Internet, including social media applications. Founded by Hoan Ton-That and Richard Schwartz, the company maintained a low profile until late 2019, when its usage by law enforcement was reported on.
In January 2020, Twitter sent a cease and desist letter and requested the deletion of all collected data. This was followed by similar actions by YouTube (via Google) and Facebook in February. The company claims to have a First Amendment right to public information and has compared its practices to the Google.com search engine. Clearview sells access to its database to more than 600 law enforcement agencies in North America to solve cases such as child sexual abuse.
In late 2017, Clearview (then Smartcheckr) hired a contractor, later doxed as 'Ricky Vaughn', a pseudonym for Douglass Mackey, who is associated with alt-right white supremacist congressional candidate Paul Nehlen. Unbeknownst to Clearview, Vaughn sent a proposal for work to Nehlen titled "Smartcheckr Consulting Group." Clearview claims to have had no knowledge of the contractor's Ricky Vaughn persona, and the technology in the proposal does not exist.
Clearview's marketing claimed their facial recognition led to a terrorist arrest. The identification was submitted to the New York Police Department tip line, but the NYPD did not use this tip to identify the suspect, and stated they have no institutional relationship with Clearview, though some 'rogue officers' use it. Clearview claims to have solved two other New York cases and "40 cold cases", later stating they submitted them to tip lines.
The company was sent a cease and desist letter from the office of New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal after including a promotional video on its website with the images of Grewal. Clearview had claimed that its app played a role in a New Jersey police sting, which Grewal confirmed had been used to identify one of the child predators. He banned the use of Clearview in all 21 counties in New Jersey and stated that "we need to have a full understanding of what is happening here and ensure there are appropriate safeguards" before using similar products. Tor Ekeland, a lawyer for Clearview, confirmed the marketing video was taken down the same day.
Clearview states their technology is not for public consumption and meant for law enforcement usage, but their marketing material encouraged users to "run wild" with their use, suggesting searching for family and friends as well as celebrities. Clearview also indicated they were targeting private security firms and also marketed to casinos through Clearview's Jessica Medeiros Garrison. Clearview also planned expansion to many countries, including Brazil, Colombia, and Nigeria, a cluster that Buzzfeed titles "authoritarian regimes" including United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Singapore, and General Data Protection Regulation-following EU countries including Italy, Greece, and Netherlands.
Documents from Clearview have claimed 98.6% or 100% accuracy while using their standard 99.6% confidence interval. Clearview provided an October 2019 document to the North Miami Police Department indicating they used a public review panel, consisting of Jonathan Lippman (former Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals, currently at Latham & Watkins, introduced via Richard Schwartz), Nicholas Cassimatis (businessperson), and Aaron Renn (formerly at Manhattan Institute) while using the methodology that ACLU used to test Amazon Rekognition. Jacob Snow of the ACLU responded, stating Clearview's test "couldn't be more different than the ACLU's work", pointed out the accuracy flaws and lack of actual racial bias methodology, and objected to Clearview implying that ACLU might endorse their "dangerous and untested surveillance product".
Founders and notable associates
Hoan Ton-That (born c. 1989) worked as a software developer at AngelList[when?] prior to founding Clearview AI. Ton-That first gained public notice in 2009, when he created ViddyHo, a website that spammed users' contacts and was described as phishing or a computer worm. Ton-That denied creating a phishing site and claimed a software bug was the cause. He then created fastforwarded.com, a similar phishing site. He also created an app called "Trump Hair", which placed Donald Trump's hair on photos.
Richard Schwartz (born c. 1959) is a graduate of Columbia University and New York University, holding degrees in History and Public Policy. He began his career working for Henry Stern, when Stern was a member of the New York City Council. Schwartz continued working with Stern during Stern's tenure as New York City Parks Commissioner under New York City Mayor Ed Koch. Schwartz heavily contributed to the 1980s New York City Parks restoration and continued public service under Mayor David Dinkins. He was appointed senior policy advisor to New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the 1990s. Schwartz authored the Work Experience Program, a welfare reform program. Schwartz founded Opportunity America, a job matching service for welfare recipients, one day after leaving public service in 1997. He served as Editorial Editor at the New York Daily News in the 2000s, where he was shortlisted for three Pulitzer Prizes. Ton-That and Schwartz met at the Manhattan Institute.
Clearview also hired Jessica Medeiros Garrison, a Republican operative who managed Luther Strange's Alabama Attorney General campaign, then became Chief Counsel and Deputy Attorney General the following year. She successfully sued blogger Roger Shuler for defamation related to her and Luther Strange. In a court case involving campaign finance violations by Democratic Alabama state senator Lowell Barron, Barron's attorneys accused Strange of paying $350,000 to Garrison. Garrison was later the director of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) during a period where it was involved in sending dark money to Luther Strange, which was returned after the transaction was uncovered, having violated Alabama campaign finance law. Garrison also worked for Balch & Bingham until May 2017. Balch & Bingham is a law firm closely associated with Jeff Sessions's political career and also one of his largest donors.
On February 14, 2020, it was revealed that Toronto Police Service had been using the service since October 2019, and that, upon learning of its use, the police chief immediately halted use of the program. This was followed the next day with revelations that Peel Regional Police and Halton Regional Police Service had also "tested" the software, with the full knowledge and consent of their respective chiefs. 
Clearview operated in near secrecy until the release of The New York Times exposé titled "The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It" in January 2020. Citing the article, over 40 tech and civil rights organizations including Color of Change, Council on American–Islamic Relations, Demand Progress, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Fight for the Future, Freedom of the Press Foundation, Media Alliance, National Center for Transgender Equality, National Hispanic Media Coalition, National LGBTQ Task Force, Project On Government Oversight, Restore the Fourth, and the Woodhull Freedom Foundation sent a letter to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) and four congressional committees, outlining their concerns with facial recognition and Clearview, asking the PCLOB to suspend the use of facial recognition.
Clearview has been described in the press as "sketchy", "creepy", and as the company "that might end privacy as we know it". Cory Doctorow called it "a creepy, grifty, privacy-invading toolsmith serving authoritarians", also pointing out the unreliability of its marketing.
It sparked a global debate on the regulation of facial recognition technology by governments and law enforcement. Numerous international media outlets called for a ban of the Clearview's software upon learning that 3 billion images had been collected from social media websites should the images have ever been public. Law enforcement officers have stated that Clearview's facial recognition is far superior in identifying perpetrators for any angle than previously used technology.
After discovering Clearview AI was scraping images from their site, Twitter sent a cease-and-desist letter, insisting that they remove all images as it is against Twitter's policies. Facebook has said they are reviewing the situation, and Venmo also stated it is against their policies. On February 5 and 6 2020, Google, Youtube, Facebook, and Venmo sent cease and desist letters as it is against their policies. Ton-That responded in an interview with Errol Barnett of CBS This Morning that there's a first amendment right to the information, results were 99.6% accurate, and they have 3 billion scraped images.
Senator Edward J. Markey wrote Clearview and Ton-That, stating "Widespread use of your technology could facilitate dangerous behavior and could effectively destroy individuals’ ability to go about their daily lives anonymously." Markey asked Clearview to detail aspects of its business to understand these privacy, bias, and security concerns.
Senator Ron Wyden tweeted about Clearview, saying it "reads like one of the more disturbing episodes of Black Mirror". Wyden also voiced concerns about Clearview's efforts to "tamp down questions from journalists".
Josh Orton, a spokesperson for the Bernie Sanders 2020 presidential campaign, stated "This is disgusting. A Sanders administration will ban facial recognition software in law enforcement, period."
Former New York City Police Commissioner and executive chairman of Teneo Risk Chief Bill Bratton challenged privacy concerns and recommended strong procedures for law enforcement usage in an op-ed in New York Daily News.
On February 10, 2020, The New York Times' popular daily news podcast, The Daily, issued an episode dedicated to Clearview AI and its potential for abuse. The episode was an offshoot of The publication's article from January 2020.
- Hill, Kashmir (2020-01-18). "The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-01-18.
- "Clearview AI Says Its Facial Recognition Software Identified A Terrorism Suspect. The Cops Say That's Not True". BuzzFeed News. Retrieved 23 January 2020.
As it signed deals, Clearview continued to misrepresent its relationship with the NYPD. It used images of the suspect from the Brooklyn bar beating in an October email sent through CrimeDex, a crime alert listserv used by police across the nation. In that email, which BuzzFeed News obtained via a public records request to the Bradenton, Florida, police department, a random man whose image was taken from an Argentine LinkedIn page is identified as a “possible match.” His name, however, does not match the name of the person who turned himself in to the NYPD.
- "Law enforcement is using a facial recognition app with huge privacy issues". Engadget. Retrieved 2020-01-21.
- "Twitter demands AI company stops 'collecting faces'". BBC News. 2020-01-23. Retrieved 2020-02-11.
- Ng, Alfred. "Clearview AI hit with cease-and-desist from Google, Facebook over facial recognition collection". CNET. Retrieved 2020-02-11.
- Hill, Kashmir; Dance, Gabriel J. X. (2020-02-07). "Clearview's Facial Recognition App Is Identifying Child Victims of Abuse". The New York Times. Retrieved 2020-02-11.
- "Google tells facial recognition startup Clearview AI to stop scraping photos". Engadget. Retrieved 2020-02-11.
- Christopher Cantwell https://christophercantwell.com/2018/04/08/doxing-and-anonymity/. Retrieved 2020-01-25. Missing or empty
- "How NYPD's facial recognition software ID'ed subway rice cooker kook". New York Post. Retrieved 2020-01-25.
- "New Jersey Bars Police From Using Clearview Facial Recognition App". nytimes.com. Retrieved 26 January 2020.
“We’ve received the attorney general’s letter and are complying,” said Tor Ekeland, Clearview’s lawyer. “The video has been removed.”
- "Rogue NYPD cops are using facial recognition app Clearview". New York Post. Retrieved 26 January 2020.
Rogue NYPD officers are using a sketchy facial recognition software on their personal phones that the department’s own facial recognition unit doesn’t want to touch because of concerns about security and potential for abuse, The Post has learned.
- "New Jersey cops told to halt all use of controversial facial-recognition technology". nj. Retrieved 26 January 2020.
Tor Ekeland, a Clearview lawyer, wrote in an email that they would take the video down, and it was no longer at the top of the company’s website Friday evening.
- "Cease and Desist" (PDF). int.nyt.com. Retrieved 26 January 2020.
- "G2E: New generation of facial recognition enhances security, raises questions - CDC Gaming Reports". CDC Gaming Reports. Retrieved 8 February 2020.
Sattar spoke Thursday at a G2E panel discussion on “Customer Identification Using Facial Recognition Technology: The Future is Now.” Also on the panel were Jessica Medeiros Garrison, president of MDM27 Holdings, whose company Clearview offers facial recognition technology to law enforcement agencies
- "Improved technology will drive facial recognition adoption, say gaming experts". www.kioskmarketplace.com. Retrieved 8 February 2020.
"This artificial intelligence really didn't take off until the last two years," Garrison said. Not only are law enforcement agencies using it to solve crimes faster, they are finding it helps solve multiple cases simultaneously. The technology has assisted in the areas of financial fraud, violent crimes and human trafficking.
- "Clearview AI Wants To Sell Its Facial Recognition Software To Authoritarian Regimes Around The World". BuzzFeed News. Retrieved 8 February 2020.
- "The ACLU Called Clearview AI's Facial Recognition Accuracy Study "Absurd"". BuzzFeed News. Retrieved 10 February 2020.
- (BuzzFeed), Caroline Haskins. "Clearveiw Ai Accuracy Test Oct 2019". documentcloud.org. Retrieved 10 February 2020.
- Snow, Jacob (10 February 2020). "Hey Clearview, Your Misleading PR Campaign Doesn't Make Your Face Surveillance Product Any Less Dystopian". ACLU. Retrieved 10 February 2020.
- "ACLU rejects Clearview AI's facial recognition accuracy claims". Engadget. Retrieved 10 February 2020.
- Mak, Aaron (2020-02-07). "Clearview's Terrifying Facial Recognition Can't Go Back in the Bottle". Slate Magazine. Retrieved 2020-02-11.
- "The person behind a privacy nightmare has a familiar face". SFChronicle.com. Retrieved 23 January 2020.
I wrote about Ton-That in February 2009 (“scathingly,” Hill writes), when he was living in San Francisco, developing first Facebook and then iPhone apps. He made the news for creating ViddyHo, a website that tricked users into sharing access to their Gmail accounts — a hacking technique known as “phishing” — and then spammed their contacts on the Google Talk chat app. (The episode does not appear on Ton-That’s sanitized personal website.)
- "Phishing Attacks Increase After Gmail Outage". Redorbit. Retrieved 23 January 2020.
San Francisco police are searching for a man who reportedly registered the ViddyHo domain under the name Cam-Hoan Ton-That.
- Snyder, Gabriel. "ViddyHo Worm Sweeping Through IM". Gawker. Retrieved 23 January 2020.
Here's a bit of a public service announcement: If someone asks you over IM to "Hey check out this video!" they foolishly fell for the just-breaking ViddyHo virus. Don't follow them.
- Thomas, Owen. "Was an 'Anarcho-Transexual Afro-Chicano' Behind the IM Worm?". Gawker. Retrieved 23 January 2020.
Ton-That frequently posted on Twitter about going to Sugarlump, an overwroughtly hip San Francisco "coffee lounge" in a rough-hewn but gentrifying corner of the Mission District, the preferred neighborhood of twentysomething Web developers. HappyAppy's office address is listed as 25 Stillman Street, a classically South of Market location for a startup. (In fact, it was once the home of Socializr, Friendster founder Jonathan Abrams's current company.)
- "Internet Worm Linked to San Francisco Man | News | The Harvard Crimson". thecrimson.com. Retrieved 23 January 2020.
The site Venture Hacks lists Hoan Ton-That as the sole member of HappyAppy Inc, a relationship that was confirmed by Hoan’s lawyer, Andre Gharakhanian of Silicon Legal Strategy.
- Thomas, Owen. "'Anarcho-Transexual' Hacker Returns with New Scam Site". Gawker. Retrieved 23 January 2020.
- "Who Cleans the Park?". Google Books. Retrieved 2020-01-25.
- "A Maximus Postscript | The Village Voice". villagevoice.com. Retrieved 23 January 2020.
In addition to obtaining special access to Turner, Hevesi charged, Maximus had an added edge because of its alliance with Schwartz, Giuliani’s former senior adviser and the man who had shaped the administration’s welfare policies. After leaving City Hall in 1997, Schwartz had started a new for-profit firm, Opportunity America, to help place welfare recipients in jobs. Schwartz won work with government and private businesses and later also enlisted to work with Maximus on its HRA contracts. His share of the contracts was expected to be worth about $30 million, records showed.
- "The Welfare Estate". City Limits. 1 June 1999. Retrieved 23 January 2020.
Then, on February 11, 1997, at age 38, Richard Schwartz announced he was leaving city government. The next day, he founded Opportunity America. His specialty would be corporate matchmaker, the missing link to help private-sector companies hire welfare recipients. But he promised in The New York Times that he wouldn’t take advantage of his government experience to win consulting contracts with New York City.
- "Shelby County blogger ordered to pay $3.5 million". al. Retrieved 8 February 2020.
- "Ex-AG staffer on affair accusations, $3.5 mill ruling". al. Retrieved 8 February 2020.
- "Jessica Garrison Fights Back Against Roger Shuler's". marieclaire.com. Retrieved 8 February 2020.
- "Return to sender: Strange campaign gives back $50,000 after questions about PAC transfer". al. Retrieved 8 February 2020.
- "Will Jeff Sessions's Balch connections hang up corruption probe?". al. Retrieved 8 February 2020.
Haden is a partner at Balch & Bingham. If you wanted to measure the distance between Sessions and Balch, in this picture it's about six feet.
- "EPIC PCLOB letter" (PDF). epic.org. Retrieved 27 January 2020.
- "Backlash grows against Clearview as lawsuit looms". The Daily Dot. Retrieved 27 January 2020.
On Monday, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and more than 35 other organizations including Fight for the Future, Demand Progress, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Color of Change, and Free Press Action, sent a letter to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent agency in the executive branch, recommending the suspension of facial recognition systems in the federal government, citing Clearview AI’s relationship with law enforcement.
- "U.S. Board Should Seek Facial Recognition Halt, Groups Say (1)". news.bloomberglaw.com. Retrieved 27 January 2020.
“Obvious problems with bias and discrimination in the systems” show the need for a moratorium, 40 organizations wrote in a letter to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.
- "Government privacy watchdog under pressure to recommend facial recognition ban". TheHill. Retrieved 27 January 2020.
The letter cited a recent New York Times report about Clearview AI, a company which claims to have a database of more than 3 billion photos and is reportedly collaborating with hundreds of police departments.
- Morse, Jack (24 January 2020). "New Jersey halts police use of creepy Clearview AI facial-recognition app". Mashable. Retrieved 26 January 2020.
- "The answer to the Clearview AI scandal is better privacy laws, not anti-scraping laws". Boing Boing. Retrieved 26 January 2020.
Nevertheless, Clearview is a creepy, grifty, privacy-invading toolsmith serving authoritarians, getting rich by covertly supplying its overhyped tools, and, unsurprisingly, lots of people (including me) want structural changes to make Clearview cut it out and prevent future Clearviews from emerging.
- Ghoshal, Abhimanyu (2020-01-20). "The next big privacy scare is a face recognition tool you've never heard of". The Next Web. Retrieved 2020-02-11.
- "Scraping the Web Is a Powerful Tool. Clearview AI Abused It". Wired. Retrieved 2020-02-11.
- Read, Max (2020-01-30). "Why We Should Ban Facial Recognition Technology". Intelligencer. Retrieved 2020-02-11.
- Linder, Courtney (2020-01-22). "This App Is a Dangerous Invasion of Your Privacy—and the FBI Uses It". Popular Mechanics. Retrieved 2020-02-11.
- "Controversial facial recognition firm Clearview AI facing legal claims after damning NYT report". The Verge. Retrieved 26 January 2020.
Clearview is also facing challenges from platforms in the wake of the NYT report. Twitter has sent Clearview a cease-and-desist letter demanding that the company stop scraping its platform for photos to include in its database. Twitter also demanded the company delete any existing data it may have obtained from the platform because using it to fill out a third-party database without user consent is against Twitter’s policies. Clearview has acknowledged publicly that it built out its database in part by scraping social media profiles.
- "Twitter Tells Facial Recognition Trailblazer to Stop Using Site's Photos". nytimes.com. Retrieved 26 January 2020.
Twitter sent a letter this week to the small start-up company, Clearview AI, demanding that it stop taking photos and any other data from the social media website “for any reason” and delete any data that it previously collected, a Twitter spokeswoman said. The cease-and-desist letter, sent on Tuesday, accused Clearview of violating Twitter’s policies.
- "Twitter demands AI company stops 'collecting faces'". BBC News. 23 January 2020.
- Matsakis, Louise. "Scraping the Web Is a Powerful Tool. Clearview AI Abused It". Wired. Retrieved 26 January 2020.
Automated scraping violates the policies of sites like Facebook and Twitter, the latter of which specifically prohibits scraping to build facial recognition databases. Twitter sent a letter to Clearview this week asking it to stop pilfering data from the site “for any reason,” and Facebook is also reportedly examining the matter, according to the Times. But it’s unclear whether they have any legal recourse in the current system.
- Errol Barnett. "Google, YouTube and Venmo send cease-and-desist letters to facial recognition app that helps law enforcement". cbsnews.com. Retrieved 6 February 2020.
- Igor Bonifacic (5 February 2020). "Google tells facial recognition startup Clearview AI to stop scraping photos". Engadget. Retrieved 6 February 2020.
Following Twitter, Google and YouTube have become the latest companies to send a cease-and-desist letter to Clearview AI, the startup behind a controversial facial recognition program that more than 600 police departments across North American use. Clearview came under scrutiny earlier this year when The New York Times showed that the company had been scraping billions of images on the internet to build its database of faces. Google has demanded Clearview stop scraping YouTube videos for its database, as well as delete any photos it has already collected.
- int.nyt.com (PDF) https://int.nyt.com/data/documenthelper/6718-sen-markey-letter-to-clearview/33422997119c3d43033d/optimized/full.pdf#page=1. Retrieved 26 January 2020. Missing or empty
- @RonWyden (2020-01-19). "This story reads like one of the more disturbing episodes of Black Mirror. Americans have a right to know whether their personal photos are secretly being sucked into a private facial recognition database" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
- @RonWyden (2020-01-19). "It's extremely troubling that this company may have monitored usage specifically to tamp down questions from journalists about the legality of their app. Everyday we witness a growing need for strong federal laws to protect Americans' privacy" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
- @joshorton (2020-01-18). "This is disgusting. A Sanders administration will ban facial recognition software in law enforcement, period" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
- "Face recognition is not the enemy". New York Daily News. 26 January 2020. Retrieved 26 January 2020.
- "The End of Privacy as We Know It?". The New York Times. 2020-02-10. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-02-11.