Hoan Ton-That is an interesting guy. He is an Australian entrepreneur by way of Vietnam, an ex model and he’s possibly created a technology that has destroyed our personal privacy forever.
Clearview AI is a new research tool used by law enforcement agencies to identify perpetrators and victims of crimes.
Clearview AI’s technology has helped law enforcement track down hundreds of at-large criminals, including pedophiles, terrorists and sex traffickers. It is also used to help exonerate the innocent and identify the victims of crimes including child sex abuse and financial fraud.
Using Clearview AI, law enforcement is able to catch the most dangerous criminals, solve the toughest cold cases and make communities safer, especially the most vulnerable among us.
Sounds pretty good, right? Using technology to take down at-large terrorists, pedophiles and sex traffickers. Everybody can get on board with that. But almost acting as a compendium for the company’s shady business practices their mission statement is very vague. They don’t tell you HOW their technology helps law enforcement catch all of these terrorists and sex traffickers. And that, “how” in this equation is big.
In 2017 Hoan Ton-That and Richard Schwartz founded Clearview AI, an American company that provides facial recognition software for commercial use. The company has amassed an impressive database of over THREE BILLION images indexed from all over the internet. Including all major social media sites.
The idea is simple: Collect every photo of everyone on Earth from every angle they can and then develop a software that can match an identity to a face in a security camera or photo. Then… sell it to ANYONE who can afford it.
To say this young company has already had its fair share of controversy would be a gross understatement.
I guess first things first – the pair of entrepreneurs have allegedly been linked to some interesting and downright controversial characters from the beginning. While courting investors they loaned the services to dickhead billionaires left and right. The early Clearview technology was being simply used as a, “plaything for the rich”.
These wealthy potential investors used the technology for pressing matters like identifying their daughter’s boyfriend to make sure she wasn’t dating a, “charlatan”. The software company has also been linked with other shitheads like everybody’s favorite, Jeffrey Epstein and Keebler elf look-a-like, Jeff Sessions.
But who they hung out with before the company took off is just the tip of the iceberg as far as controversy is concerned.
Clearview operated in a shroud of secrecy for years before a New York Times expose titled, “The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It” was released in January 2020 (1).
Following the publication over forty tech and civil rights organizations sent a letter to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB). The ACLU had also begun legal proceedings on behalf of the people of the state of Illinois as well.
Software “scraping” photos of users off every social media site in the world unknowingly sounds really illegal but not surprisingly it isn’t. Not surprising only because it seems that most cyber law isn’t legislated until after the act. Mainly because no one expected someone to develop a software that stores every single photo of everyone that’s ever been on the internet. Which in hindsight always seems obvious. OF COURSE some James Bond Villain type would develop this but as they say hindsight is always 20/20.
Ultimately highly unethical but not necessarily illegal.
Twitter, Facebook and the rest of Big Social eventually responded with cease and desist orders also demanding the return of all user photos of the respective platforms but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Hoan Ton-That is far from some sort of strongman and it’s not that Clearview AI is a legal powerhouse but what makes the company so powerful isn’t the company itself. It’s who employs them.
Law enforcement agencies immediately jumped at the chance to utilize the facial recognition software and are Clearview’s largest client. But in late February 2020 the software company suffered a major data breach with hackers leaking their entire client list. No one was surprised to find out that ICE, FBI or the DOJ had been using the software but what shocked many was the amount of private companies employing the facial recognition service. Businesses like Home Depot, Best Buy and even Madison Square Garden. Most businesses and College campuses that were using it or considering the security measures were met with ferocious backlash and distanced themselves from the company. But not all schools and private businesses.
Commercial and other non-government entities
- Columbia University
- Southern Methodist University
- University of Alabama
- Central Montco Technical High School, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania
- Somerset Berkley Regional High School, Somerset, Massachusetts
- Gavin de Becker and Associates (a paid customer with over 3600 searches)
- SilverSEAL Global Security
- Home Depot
- AT&T (have performed over 200 searches)
- Kohls (over 2000 searches)
- Rite Aid
- Best Buy
- Macys (a paid customer with over 6000 searches; terminated contract in January 2020)
- Wells Fargo
- Bank of America (over 1900 searches)
- Equinox Fitness
- National Basketball Association
- Pechanga Resort & Casino
- Las Vegas Sands
- Madison Square Garden
- Mubadala Investment Company, a sovereign wealth fund of United Arab Emirates (ran over 100 searches)
- AI Center of Advanced Studies (aka Thakaa), Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
- SHW Partners, LLC (Jason Miller), listed as “friend”
- Samarian Group (PE firm), listed as “friend”
- Droese Raney Architecture, listed as “friend”
- American Enterprise Institute (logins from AEI posted a banner stating “Richard says hi”, presumably referring to Richard Schwartz)
- The Manhattan Institute (at least a dozen searches, though denied by the think tank)
- Greylock Partners (a potential investor in 2018)
- Data Collective Venture Capital (over 270 searches, as recently as Feb 2020)
- Passport Capital (over 350 searches)
- Sequoia Capital (over 210 searches in 10 months)
- Founders Fund (2 accounts and 70 searches)
- Thiel Capital (one account, never used)
- Iconiq Capital (over 70 searches, as recently as Feb 2020)
- RIT Capital Partners
- The Zellman Group (over 1700 searches)
- Bruning Law Group
- Frontwave Credit Union
- Navy Federal Credit Union
- Chicago Cubs baseball team (15 searches)
As the Coronavirus pandemic rages in April 2020 Clearview even threw its own hat in the ring to offer its services to state’s department of health offices to assist with contact tracing.
It seems theres nothing there are not willing to exploit people’s privacy for.
So what are we left with? An invasive and creepy company that keeps the wolf from the door by collecting and selling our heads (and faces) to law enforcement searching for criminals and a room full of constantly stunned lawmakers that never have the foresight or imagination to look to the future and get ahead of gross oversteps in cyber privacy and security.
Oh and it’s worth noting that despite the company claiming it has up to a 99.6% accuracy rate of identifying people that really only seems to be the case with identifying Caucasian males. Where in a study conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology the algorithms falsely identified Asian and African American faces 10 to 100 times more. Sounds like America to me. – DC
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