Clearview AI, the dystopian face recognition company that claims to have amassed a database of billions of photos, signed contracts with hundreds of law enforcement agencies, and shopped its app around to the rich and powerful, has extensive links to the far right, according to a Huffington Post investigation. In fact, one of its associates claimed to have been working on a face recognition product explicitly designed to be useful for mass deportations.
Founder Hoan Ton-That’s has links to the far-right movement that move right past suspicious into obvious, according to HuffPo. He reportedly attended a 2016 dinner with white supremacist Richard Spencer and organized by alt-right financier Jeff Giesea, an associate of Palantir founder and Trump-supporting billionaire Peter Thiel. (Thiel secretly bankrolled a lawsuit that bankrupted Gizmodo’s former parent company, Gawker Media.) Ton-That was also a member of a Slack channel run by professional troll Chuck Johnson for his now-defunct WeSearchr, a crowdfunding platform primarily used by white supremacists; that channel included people like the webmaster of neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer, Andrew Auernheimer, and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich,
Per HuffPo, in January 2017 Johnson posted on Facebook that he was working on “building algorithms to ID all the illegal immigrants for the deportation squads.” Another source told HuffPo that they had seen him bragging about that work to “a whole bunch of really important people” at Trump’s DC hotel that spring, introducing them to a man the source identified as almost certainly being Ton-That.
Johnson, who was involved with Trump’s transition team, also hit up then-Breitbart employee Katie McHugh, who at that time was a white supremacist but has since left the movement. McHugh told HuffPo that Johnson asked to be put in contact with ghoulish Trump adviser Stephen Miller so he could tout a “way to identify every illegal alien in the country.” (It’s unclear whether that happened, but Clearview’s clients include Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI.) That same year, Thiel invested $200,000 in Clearview.
Smartcheckr’s labor pool also included many ethnonationalists who believe in purging the U.S. of nonwhites, according to HuffPo. One of those was hardcore racist and Johnson associate Tyler Bass, who described himself as an “investigator” doing “remote software testing” for the app and whose LinkedIn posts suggest may have had access to law enforcement data associated with criminal investigations as late as 2018. Bass also claimed to McHugh to have been in attendance at a disastrous far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, where a neo-Nazi terror attack killed protester Heather Heyer and wounded scores of others.
Another was Douglass Mackey, the overseer of a vast online racist propaganda operation under the moniker “Ricky Vaughn,” had a role as a contract consultant for Smartcheckr. While there, he touted the use of its face recognition tools to anti-Semitic congressional candidate Paul Nehlen for extreme campaign opposition research. (Ton-That told HuffPo that Mackey was only a contractor for three weeks and his offer to Nehlen was unauthorized, though Smartcheckr employees took steps to distance themselves from Mackey after he was outed as “Ricky Vaughn” in 2018.)
There was also Marko Jukic, HuffPo wrote, a Clearview AI employee who marketed its products to police departments and had a history as a prolific contributor to extremist blogs, including a post where he advocated “segregation and separation” of Jews. One of Clearview’s lawyers, Tor Ekeland, is best known for representing far-right provocateurs and racists like Auernheimer.
Johnson appears to have had access to WeSearchr until at least January 2020, when he showed a fellow passenger on a flight to Boston a powerful face recognition app on his phone, according to a BuzzFeed report. In a statement to HuffPo, Ton-That denied that Johnson was an “executive, employee, consultant” or board member of Clearview, though he didn’t clarify whether Johnson holds equity in the company. He also told the site that Clearview has severed ties with Bass and Jukic, claiming he was “shocked by and completely unaware of Marko Jukic’s online writings under a different name.” (Jukic used the same pseudonym to talk with Ton-That on Slack and email that he did in his racist blog posts, HuffPo noted.)
Ton-That also told the site that he grew up on the internet, which “not always served me well” during his upbringing, ad“There was a period when I explored a range of ideas—not out of belief in any of them, but out of a desire to search for self and place in the world. I have finally found it, and the mission to help make America a safer place. To those who have read my words in the Huffington Post article, I deeply apologize for them.”
Clearview built its face recognition database by scraping photos en masse from public social media posts, a practice that is technically legal but could expose it to significant civil liability from rights holders. While scraping is legal, Clearview’s business practices have resulted in cease-and-desists from Silicon Valley giants like Google, and may have run afoul of other laws. The state attorney general of Vermont filed a lawsuit against the company last month alleging violations of the Vermont Consumer Protection Act and a state data broker law, while the AG of New Jersey ordered all police in the state to stop using Clearview products. Canadian privacy commissioners are investigating the company; it is also facing two class action lawsuits, one of which alleges that the company violated Illinois biometrics laws.