US lawmakers question biometrics firm over business practices and work with foreign governments

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The admission by Olympic-caliber web scraper Clearview AI last week that its account information had been stolen has prompted nettled letters this week from at least one U.S. senator and two U.S. representatives seeking answers from founder and CEO Hoan Ton-That.

The startup brought on a wave of controversy by selling access to the (at last count) three billion images of people that it has copied and pasted from free internet pages. A great number of those pages were part of social-media accounts.

At the time of the first story, Facebook and Twitter were among platforms that were criticized for not taking precautions to prevent such a wholesale lifting of personal-identity information. For them, it was the latest in a lengthening shadow of missteps and attacks. The existence of that cache by itself is a polarizing matter among civil liberty activists and personal data capitalists.

The client list breach exposed that in addition to domestic law enforcement, Clearview is seeking customers among retailers and agencies of foreign governments, including some with histories of human rights abuses.

Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) took the opportunity to tell Ton-That in writing that he had not adequately answered queries he posed to the entrepreneur in writing in January. Markey wrote that he remains concerned that Clearview AI is taking subscription orders from authoritarian governments, and not sufficiently protecting the federally protected privacy of children.

Markey also notes that Clearview’s website directs people to submit sensitive information to have their images removed from the company’s database, and expresses worry about how the company conducts its business with clients.

“I am equally disturbed by new reports about other alleged Clearview business practices that may threaten the public’s civil liberties and privacy,” the senator writes. “Investigations have called into question Clearview’s claimed successes and uncovered emails from Clearview employees encouraging officers to ‘run wild’ and use Clearview’s facial recognition technology on friends, family, and celebrities.”

A similar letter has been sent by the two leaders of the House’s committee on science, space and technology. Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democrat from Texas, and Oklahoma Republican and ranking member Frank D. Lucas want answers about how biometric data is compiled, among other issues.

The House representatives ask six questions in their letter, and seek written answers by March 17.

This matter could prove to be somewhat fertile ground for politicians.

According to Broadbandnow.com, an online publisher of broadband-provider information, 82 percent of U.S. consumers surveyed said online security is a worry. And 80 percent of social-media subscribers are concerned that businesses access the personal information they share online.

Internal Clearview AI documents obtained by BuzzFeed News from an anonymous source (a development which has yet to be independently confirmed) suggest the firm has 2,200 clients in 27 countries, all of whom now are at some risk of cybersecurity headaches.

What has been known is that Clearview AI markets subscriptions to U.S. and Canadian law agencies at the federal, state and local levels, including border-protection agencies. BuzzFeed says the newly released documents show private companies and investment funds also are paying for peeks.

The U.S. Custom and Border Protection agency, according to BuzzFeed, have registered about 280 accounts that together have performed 7,500 searches. Agency officials asked by BuzzFeed about this would only say the Clearview AI data is not part of its biometric entry and exit program.

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