This man says he’s stockpiling billions of our photos
Updated 9:18 AM ET, Mon February 10, 2020
If Hoan Ton-That is feeling the pressure, he isn’t showing it.
Over the last month, fears about facial recognition technology and police surveillance have intensified, all thanks to Ton-That’s startup, Clearview AI.
First came a front-page investigation in The New York Times, revealing Clearview has been working with law enforcement agencies to match photos of unknown faces to people’s online images. Next, cease-and-desist letters rolled in from tech giants Twitter, Google and Facebook. Lawmakers made inquiries and New Jersey enacted a statewide ban on law enforcement using Clearview while it looks into the software.
But during an interview at CNN’s studios in New York City last week, Ton-That didn’t seem particularly fazed, saying the last few weeks were “interesting.”
He demonstrated the technology and described himself as “honored” to kick off a broader conversation about facial recognition and privacy. He’s eager to build a “great American company” with “the best of intentions” and wouldn’t sell his product to Iran, Russia or China, he said. He claimed the technology is saving kids and solving crimes. And he said he welcomes government regulation.
But so far, Ton-That and Clearview have triggered more concerns than acclaim.
A face in the crowd
Clearview AI is controversial for many reasons, but perhaps the most important is its massive database. The company claims to have scraped more than 3 billion photos from the internet, including from popular social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. Not only that, but Clearview retains those photos in its database even after users delete them from the platforms or make their accounts private.
Clearview sells access to its database to law enforcement agencies, so those agencies can match unknown faces to other images.
CNN Business saw firsthand how the technology works in a demonstration last week.
First, Ton-That ran a photo of my face though the database, pulling up in seconds multiple different pictures of me from across the internet.
Most jarringly, he found a photo that I had probably not seen in more than a decade, a picture that ran in a local newspaper in Ireland when I was 15-years-old and in high school. Needless to say, I look a lot different now than I did then; in fact, my producer, who has to spend far more time than she’d like looking at me through a camera, didn’t even recognize me. But the system did.
Clearview has given similar demonstrations to law enforcement, and some have been convinced to hand over taxpayers’ dollars for the tool. The Chicago Police Department, for instance, is paying almost $50,000 for a two-year Clearview “pilot,” a police spokesperson confirmed to CNN Business.