Terrifying Clearview App Could Be The End of Anonymity In Public Places

Using billions of photos from social networking sites, Clearview is creating a facial recognition database. The company offers its services to US authorities.

According to a report in the New York Times, an obscure US company has compiled around three billion images of people from the Internet in order to develop a comprehensive database for facial recognition. Last year, access to it was offered as a service to more than 600 authorities, the newspaper wrote over the weekend, citing the company named Clearview. Clearview does not provide any information on which authorities these were. On its website, however, the company has Canadian investigators specializing in the investigation of sexual crimes praised.

According to the company, publicly accessible images were sucked into the database on platforms such as Facebook and YouTube or the US payment service Venmo. A collection in this dimension would surpass previously known databases for face recognition. In the USA, for example, the authorities use facial recognition to verify the identity of those entering the country – but they use images that were taken specifically for this purpose.

The company Clearview

The previously practically unknown company Clearview only came to the public through the research of the New York Times. A former financier was US billionaire Peter Thiel. The Paypal co-founder and Facebook investor is known for his libertarian views and as one of the few declared supporters of President Donald Trump in Silicon Valley. His spokesman told the newspaper that Thiel had supported Clearview with $200,000 in 2017 and received a share in return. He was not otherwise involved.

The founder of Clearview is 31-year-old Hoan Ton-That, who came to the USA from Australia. Before that, he had had some less successful business ideas, such as an app that allowed users to add Trump’s signature hairstyle to their photos. He had been thinking about a career as a model for a while, but then decided to get into the face recognition business, he told the New York Times.

Alarming details

The report contained another alarming detail. After some police officers ran her photo through the database at the journalist’s request, they were called by Clearview representatives to ask if they would speak to the press. According to the company, the software only alerted them to unusual searches. In addition, Ton-That admitted in response to the newspaper’s inquiry that Clearview had also developed the prototype of computer glasses with facial recognition capabilities – but there were no plans to market them.

The report already triggered initial political reactions at the weekend. U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, a member of the Democratic Party, expressed concern and demanded that Americans should know whether their photos are secretly being stored in a private database.