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Central position in biometrics and privacy debate “an honor,” Clearview AI CEO says

Controversial facial recognition software used by more than 2,400 police agencies


In a one-hour-long video interview with This Week in Startups, Clearview AI CEO Hoan Ton-That discusses the misconceptions around biometric facial recognition, arguing his technology is “a tool to help get a lead” and only “used when there is probable cause for a crime.”

In the middle of an international scandal, the New York startup had signed over 2,400 service contracts with law enforcement agencies to deploy its facial recognition software, at the time of the interview in May.

Interviewer Jason Calacanis based his interview on a New York Times investigation discussing the company’s business strategy to scrape images from social networks. Despite the controversy, Ton-That claims “it’s an honor to be at the center of the debate now and talk about privacy,” and confirms the paper’s reporting is “extremely fair.”

The interview was recorded in May, but posted this week, as protests against police violence gripped America and changed the context of discussions on law enforcement tools. Calacanis notes in the interview that he is often not contacted for comment on stories mentioning him, and suggests journalistic standards have degraded, though Ton-That claims to have been contacted for most stories with original research, rather than “follow-on stories,” and emphasizes the importance of engagement.

Annual fees for the service are approximately $2,000 per officer access, and the more licenses purchased, the more money it makes. Ton-That says the cost is not that high “compared to what’s come previously” and that the licenses are usually purchased for detectives.

A client list leaked earlier this year indicated that people associated with 2,258 agencies, companies, or institutions had signed up and run searches, though many appeared to have done so on a trial basis, or without official organizational support.

Asked about license plate reading technology, Ton-That draws a comparison between that technology, which sparked concerns and moratoriums when it was first introduced, before being widely adopted, and facial recognition.

NBC Miami reports facial biometrics technology developed by Clearview AI was used by Miami police to arrest a protester and charge her “with battery on a police officer.” Another NBC 6 investigation found police units across South Florida are using Clearview AI’s facial recognition technology.

Miami Police says the biometric technology is not used for surveillance purposes of people engaged in “constitutionally protected activities.”

“This means that if someone is peacefully protesting and not committing a crime, we cannot use it against them,” Miami Police Assistant Chief Armando Aguilar told NBC 6 in an interview. “We have used the technology to identify violent protesters who assaulted police officers, who damaged police property, who set property on fire. We have made several arrests in those cases and more arrests are coming in the near future.”

Clearview AI has just entered a partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

A formal complaint was recently filed against Clearview in France, alleging GDPR violations. The startup is facing its own BIPA suits. The Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information (Hmb BfDI) has issued an administrative order against Clearview AI on information regarding the biometric processing of personal data.

Macy’s has been sued under Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA) for its use of Clearview’s facial recognition.

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