Creepy facial recognition firm Clearview AI—which claims to have built an extensive database from billions of photos scraped from the public web—allowed the rich and powerful to use its app as a personal plaything and spy tool, according to reporting from the New York Times on Thursday.
Clearview and its founder, Hoan Ton-That, claim that the database is only supposed to be used by law enforcement and “select security professionals” in the course of investigations. Prior reports from the Times revealed that hundreds of law enforcement agencies, including the Department of Justice and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, had used Clearview’s biometric tools, which is alarming enough, given the total lack of any U.S. laws regulating how face recognition can be used and its proven potential in mass surveillance of anyone from minorities to political targets. Clearview also pitched itself and its tools to white supremacist Paul Nehlen, then a candidate for Congress, saying it could provide “unconventional databases” for “extreme opposition research.”
But the Times has now found that Clearview’s app was “freely used in the wild by the company’s investors, clients and friends” in situations ranging from showing off at parties to, in the case of billionaire Gristedes founder John Catsimatidis, correctly identifying a man his daughter was on a date with. More alarmingly, Catsimatidis launched a trial run of Clearview’s potential as a surveillance tool at his chain of grocery stores.
Catsimatidis told the Times that a Gristedes in Manhattan had used Clearview to screen for “shoplifters or people who had held up other stores,” adding, “People were stealing our Häagen-Dazs. It was a big problem.” That dovetails with other reporting by BuzzFeed that found Clearview is developing security cameras designed to work with its face recognition tools and that corporations including Kohl’s, Macy’s, and the NBA had tested it.