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Shadowy origin story has observers picking at Clearview AI

biometric digital identity verification for fraud prevention

Privacy advocates are starting to worry publicly that Clearview AI, the infamous face-scraping biometric startup, ultimately will prevail in court against those who feel only an individual can own their face.

More attention is being focused on the personalities behind the brand.

Clearview’s facial recognition technology and business model have been explained and debated thoroughly. Anyone in the United States who is worried about their privacy today knows the company.

The firm is said, for example, to have raised $17 million, and is valued at $109 million. Those are comically small sums for an AI software company in today’s frothy venture capital environment, leading some to doubt them.

The totals are modest even considering that Hoan Ton-That, the Australian immigrant who founded the firm, saying that, in the United States, he would try to only sign law enforcement clients. As exemplified by conflicts reported this month in Belarus, Greece and Myanmar, plenty of police departments globally are willing to use facial recognition in controversial ways.

Regardless, observers are poking around the company’s brief past to more fully flesh out where Clearview came from and who has guided it.

Consistent far-right influence has been documented even as the company’s biometric algorithms are used to identify the right-wing insurrectionists who broke into the U.S. Capitol.

Ton-That has been seen at various conservative functions, including the Republican National Convention last year. This is not new.

Vengeful libertarian billionaire investor Peter Thiel participated in a $1.4 million angel round when Clearview launched in 2017. He had expressed interest in investing a modest $200,000, though it is unknown how much he has put in the company.

Less known is the role played by Charles Johnson, identified as a “notorious conservative provocateur” in a new, extensive look at Clearview by The New York Times Magazine. Adding “troll” to his name in a search engine likely will return more hits.

A great deal of effort is dedicated in the article to bringing up to speed the many readers who have not closely followed facial recognition and privacy developments, but just as much work is done trying to illuminate just who has done what to get Clearview out of the ground.

Johnson plays a prominent and debated role.

The Forbes.com article puts him inside the Trump transition team with Thiel, vetting potential political appointees. The piece says Johnson is the perpetrator of numerous conspiracy theories and political misinformation campaigns. He was banned by Twitter after he allegedly threatened the life of a Black Lives Matters activist.

The Times piece says Johnson tells people he is a Clearview co-founder, and that he has documents to back up his assertions. Ton-That in a statement to the newspaper has said Johnson helped connect people with Clearview in the early days.

He maintains, for instance, that he connected Ton-That with Richard Schwartz, a New York City political insider who worked for Rudolf Giuliani when Giuliani was mayor of the city. Schwartz is officially listed as co-founder of Clearview.

Much of the firm’s history is hidden in shadows, something that spurred the Times story, given that “Clearview is a radical new entrant” to the emerging AI industry.

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