Clearview AI CEO Hoan Ton-That admitted that the company scraped 30 billion photos from Facebook and other social media platforms and used them in its massive facial recognition database accessible by law enforcement agencies across the U.S. Critics call the company’s database a “perpetual police lineup.”
This is an example of the growing cooperation between private companies and government agencies in the ever-growing U.S. surveillance state.
The photos were collected from social media platforms without users’ permission or knowledge.
Clearview AI markets its facial recognition database as a tool allowing law enforcement to rapidly generate leads “to help identify suspects, witnesses and victims to close cases faster and keep communities safe.” According to Ton-That, law enforcement agencies across the U.S. have accessed the company’s database over 1 million times since 2017.
According to a CNN report last year, more than 3,100 U.S. agencies use Clearview AI, including the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.
In a statement, Ton-That said, “Clearview AI’s database of publicly available images is lawfully collected, just like any other search engine like Google.”
While photo scraping might be legal, Facebook sent Clearview AI a cease and desist order in 2020 for violation of the platform’s terms of service. In an email to Insider, a Meta spokesperson said, “Clearview AI’s actions invade people’s privacy, which is why we banned their founder from our services and sent them a legal demand to stop accessing any data, photos, or videos from our services.”
Fight for the Future director of campaigns Caitlin Seeley George called Clearview “a total affront to peoples’ rights, full stop,” and said, “Police should not be able to use this tool.”
“Without laws stopping them, police often use Clearview without their department’s knowledge or consent, so Clearview boasting about how many searches is the only form of ‘transparency’ we get into just how widespread use of facial recognition is.”
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) senior policy analyst Matthew Guariglia told Insider that virtually everybody is subject to inclusion in this massive facial recognition database. That’s a problem even if you think you have “nothing to hide.”
“You don’t know what you have to hide. Governments come and go and things that weren’t illegal become illegal. And suddenly, you could end up being somebody who could be retroactively arrested and prosecuted for something that wasn’t illegal when you did it.”
Mass Facial Surveillance
Clearview AI is part of a massive facial recognition surveillance system that is rapidly expanding in the United States.
A 2019 report revealed that the federal government has turned state driver’s license photos into a giant facial recognition database, putting virtually every driver in America in a perpetual electronic police lineup. The revelations generated widespread outrage, but the story wasn’t new. The federal government has been developing a massive facial recognition system for years.
The FBI rolled out a nationwide facial recognition program in the fall of 2014, with the goal of building a giant biometric database with pictures provided by the states and corporate friends.
In 2016, the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law released “The Perpetual Lineup,” a massive report on law enforcement use of facial recognition technology in the U.S. You can read the complete report at perpetuallineup.org. The organization conducted a year-long investigation and collected more than 15,000 pages of documents through more than 100 public records requests. The report paints a disturbing picture of intense cooperation between the federal government, and state and local law enforcement to develop a massive facial recognition database.
“Face recognition is a powerful technology that requires strict oversight. But those controls, by and large, don’t exist today,” report co-author Clare Garvie said. “With only a few exceptions, there are no laws governing police use of the technology, no standards ensuring its accuracy, and no systems checking for bias. It’s a wild west.”
Despite the outrage generated by these reports, Congress has done nothing to roll back this facial recognition program.
There are many technical and legal problems with facial recognition, including significant concerns about the accuracy of the technology, particularly when reading the facial features of minority populations. During a test run by the ACLU of Northern California, facial recognition misidentified 26 members of the California legislature as people in a database of arrest photos.
With facial recognition technology, police and other government officials have the capability to track individuals in real-time. These systems allow law enforcement agents to use video cameras and continually scan everybody who walks by. According to the report, several major police departments have expressed an interest in this type of real-time tracking. Documents revealed agencies in at least five major cities, including Los Angeles, either claimed to run real-time face recognition off of street cameras, bought technology with the capability, or expressed written interest in buying it.
In all likelihood, the federal government heavily involves itself in helping state and local agencies obtain this technology. The feds provide grant money to local law enforcement agencies for a vast array of surveillance gear, including ALPRs, stingray devices and drones. The federal government essentially encourages and funds a giant nationwide surveillance net and then taps into the information via fusion centers and the Information Sharing Environment (ISE).
Fusion centers were sold as a tool to combat terrorism, but that is not how they are being used. The ACLU pointed to a bipartisan congressional report to demonstrate the true nature of government fusion centers: “They haven’t contributed anything meaningful to counterterrorism efforts. Instead, they have largely served as police surveillance and information sharing nodes for law enforcement efforts targeting the frequent subjects of police attention: Black and brown people, immigrants, dissidents, and the poor.”
Fusion centers operate within the broader ISE. According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators…have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant. Known ISE partners include the Office of Director of National Intelligence which oversees 17 federal agencies and organizations, including the NSA. ISE utilizes these partnerships to collect and share data on the millions of unwitting people they track.
Reports that the Berkeley Police Department in cooperation with a federal fusion center deployed cameras equipped to surveil a “free speech” rally and Antifa counterprotests provided the first solid link between the federal government and local authorities in facial recognition surveillance.
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