What if a stranger could snap your picture on the sidewalk then use an app to quickly discover your name, address and other details? A startup called Clearview AI has made that possible, and its app is currently being used by hundreds of law enforcement agencies in the US, including the FBI, says a Saturday report in The New York Times.
The app, says the Times, works by comparing a photo to a database of more than 3 billion pictures that Clearview says it’s scraped off Facebook, Venmo, YouTube and other sites. It then serves up matches, along with links to the sites where those database photos originally appeared. A name might easily be unearthed, and from there other info could be dug up online.
The size of the Clearview database dwarfs others in use by law enforcement. The FBI’s own database, which taps passport and driver’s license photos, is one of the largest, with over 641 million images of US citizens.
The Clearview app isn’t currently available to the public, but the Times says police officers and Clearview investors think it will be in the future.
The startup said in a statement Tuesday that its “technology is intended only for use by law enforcement and security personnel. It is not intended for use by the general public.”
Using the system involves uploading photos to Clearview AI’s servers, and it’s unclear how secure these are. Although Clearview AI says its customer-support employees will not look at the photos that are uploaded, it appeared to be aware that Kashmir Hill (the Times journalist investigating the piece) was having police search for her face as part of her reporting:
While the company was dodging me, it was also monitoring me. At my request, a number of police officers had run my photo through the Clearview app. They soon received phone calls from company representatives asking if they were talking to the media — a sign that Clearview has the ability and, in this case, the appetite to monitor whom law enforcement is searching for.
The Times reports that the system appears to have gone viral with police departments, with over 600 already signed up. Although there’s been no independent verification of its accuracy, Hill says the system was able to identify photos of her even when she covered the lower half of her face, and that it managed to find photographs of her that she’d never seen before.
One expert quoted by The Times said that the amount of money involved with these systems means that they need to be banned before the abuse of them becomes more widespread. “We’ve relied on industry efforts to self-police and not embrace such a risky technology, but now those dams are breaking because there is so much money on the table,” said a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University, Woodrow Hartzog, “I don’t see a future where we harness the benefits of face recognition technology without the crippling abuse of the surveillance that comes with it. The only way to stop it is to ban it.”
Source: The Verge