Clearview AI has been provided with the go-ahead signal for securing a federal patent for its facial recognition software, as reported by Politico. The US Patents and Trademarks Office sent a “notice of allowance” to Clearview on December 1, implying that the patent will be awarded once the organization pays the necessary administrative fees. The patent will, among other things, cover its method of obtaining information, specifically, its “automated web crawler” tool that scans social networking sites and the internet, the same process that has led the company to face extensive backlash from numerous privacy advocates.
“There are other facial recognition patents out there — that are methods of doing it — but this is the first one around the use of large-scale internet data,” Ton-That, the founder of Clearview AI, told Politico in an interview. Clearview AI has more than 10 billion photos in their database, which was confirmed by Ton-That, much more than the previous estimate of 3 billion images. At this moment, the UK, Australia, and France have issued official notices to Clearview to stop gathering any information on their citizens and remove all existing data.
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How did it all start?
Clearview AI was founded by Hoan Ton-That, an Australian entrepreneur, and Richard Schwartz, who had worked previously with New York City Mayors such as Rudy Giuliani. Ton-That had first arrived in San Francisco to join the growing market for developing social media applications in 2007. In 2009, he created a site that allowed people to share videos with their contacts using instant messenger. However, he shut down this website once it was labelled a “phishing scam.” He then developed an app named “Trump Hair” in 2015, which allowed people to apply the iconic hair of Donald Trump to their pictures. Neither of his ventures became a big hit, as he envisioned.
Ton-That met Schwartz in 2016 at a book event held in the Manhattan Institute. They soon decided to enter the facial recognition business together, where Ton-That would build the application, and Schwartz would use his political influence to attract commercial interest. In 2016, Hoan hired two engineers. One was tasked to develop a tool to collect pictures of people’s faces from the internet and different social media sites. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn have all sent cease and desist letters to Clearview AI in 2020. The other engineer perfected the facial recognition algorithm. Ton-That described the final system developed as a “state-of-the-art neural net.” It has an accuracy of 98.6% and provides results in 30-60% of cases. Schwartz paid for server fees and other expenses during this time and used his contacts to drum up interest among government agencies. The company first started near the end of 2017 under the name of Smartcheckr but soon changed it to Clearview.
The Impact of Clearview AI
Based on a leaked list accessed by Buzzfeed, more than 1,800 law enforcement agencies have used Clearview’s facial recognition technology. According to the company and government officials, this includes the FBI, Homeland Security, and Canadian law enforcement authorities. Several sources reported in February 2020 that Clearview AI faced a data breach revealing its customers. Clearview had previously stated it only allowed access to law enforcement agencies, but the data breach revealed that the startup had sold its software to specific private organizations.
The company also raised 30 million dollars in its Series B funding in July 2021 despite being the target of multiple lawsuits and a joint investigation by Britain and Australia. Approval of the patent for their facial recognition software will make them even more defiant to external pressures and continue aggressively scraping pictures to increase their database. The COVID-19 pandemic caused people to volunteer to provide their data for public use for the greater good, but companies like Clearview AI can quickly commercialize these.
The granting of the patent by the US Patents and Trademarks Office will place Clearview AI in an ideal position to become the primary facial recognition software to be used by all US law enforcement authorities. The cease and desist letter by big tech companies to prevent Clearview from scraping images from their sites had no effect, and neither is it likely to have in the future. So, in short, it looks increasingly likely that Clearview AI is here to stay, and it is imperative to make anyone who uses the internet aware of this facial recognition software. It is also setting a dangerous precedent for all future AIs.