Clearview: from billionaire plaything to police surveillance tool
Controversial facial recognition tool used by hundreds of law enforcement agencies
Billionaire John Catsimatidis used Clearview to surveil shoppers at a grocery store he owns, and to identify a man he saw on a date with his daughter. Photograph: the New York Times
One Tuesday night in October 2018, John Catsimatidis, the billionaire owner of the Gristedes grocery store chain, was having dinner at Cipriani, an upscale Italian restaurant in Manhattan’s SoHo neighbourhood, when his daughter, Andrea, walked in. She was on a date with a man Catsimatidis didn’t recognise. After the couple sat down at another table, Catsimatidis asked a waiter to go over and take a photo.
Catsimatidis then uploaded the picture to a facial recognition app, Clearview AI, on his phone. The start-up behind the app has a database of billions of photos, scraped from sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Within seconds, Catsimatidis was viewing a collection of photos of the mystery man, along with the web addresses where they appeared: his daughter’s date was a venture capitalist from San Francisco.
“I wanted to make sure he wasn’t a charlatan,” said Catsimatidis, who then texted the man’s bio to his daughter. Andrea Catsimatidis said she and her date had no idea how her father had identified him so quickly.
“I expect my dad to be able to do crazy things. He’s very technologically savvy,” she said. “My date was very surprised.”
Clearview was unknown to the general public until this January, when the New York Times reported that the secretive start-up had developed a breakthrough facial recognition system that was in use by hundreds of law enforcement agencies. The company quickly faced a backlash on multiple fronts. Facebook, Google and other tech giants sent cease-and-desist letters. Lawsuits were filed in Illinois and Virginia, and the attorney general of New Jersey issued a moratorium against the app in that state.
In response to the criticism, Clearview published a “code of conduct”, emphasising in a blog post that its technology was “available only for law enforcement agencies and select security professionals to use as an investigative tool”.
The post added: “We recognise that powerful tools always have the potential to be abused, regardless of who is using them, and we take the threat very seriously. Accordingly, the Clearview app has built-in safeguards to ensure these trained professionals only use it for its intended purpose: to help identify the perpetrators and victims of crimes.”
The New York Times, however, has identified multiple individuals with active access to Clearview’s technology who are not law enforcement officials. And for more than a year before the company became the subject of public scrutiny, the app had been freely used in the wild by the company’s investors, clients and friends.
Those with Clearview logins used facial recognition at parties, on dates and at business gatherings, giving demonstrations of its power for fun or using it to identify people whose names they didn’t know or couldn’t recall.
“As part of the ordinary course of due diligence, we provided trial accounts to potential and current investors, and other strategic partners, so they could test the technology,” said Hoan Ton-That, the company’s co-founder.
John Catsimatidis first heard about Clearview from his friend Richard Schwartz, another founder of the company, who served as an aide to Rudy Giuliani when Giuliani was mayor of New York. Last summer, Catsimatidis ran a trial project with Clearview at an East Side Gristedes market. The company used the system to identify known “shoplifters or people who had held up other stores,” Catsimatidis said.
“People were stealing our Haagen-Dazs. It was a big problem,” he said. He described Clearview as a “good system” that helped security personnel identify problem shoppers.
BuzzFeed News has reported that two other entities, a labour union and a real estate firm, also ran trials with a surveillance system developed by Clearview to flag individuals they deemed risky. The publication also reported that Clearview’s software has been used by US retailers Best Buy, Macy’s, Kohl’s, the National Basketball Association and numerous other organisations.
When Clearview first developed its facial recognition service in 2017, Ton-That and Schwartz were uncertain about who might pay for it, and they courted a range of clients including real estate firms, banks and retailers. At the same time, Clearview was seeking outside investment. Many of the individuals the company approached got personal logins to the app.
Clearview received a seed investment round of about $1 million (€900,000) in July 2018. Its backers included the billionaire investor Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist David Scalzo and Hal Lambert, an investor in Texas who runs an exchange-traded fund with the ticker symbol “MAGA”, which tracks companies that align with Republican politics.
“I have the app,” Lambert said in an interview. “I’ve used it to talk about what we’re doing in the space. I show it to friends of mine, potential investors. “They thought it was amazing,” he added. “They say, ‘How do I get that?’ And I say, ‘You can’t.’”
When Clearview was seeking its Series A round of funding, which was completed in 2019, the start-up contacted a number of venture capital firms, including Sequoia Capital and Khosla Ventures. Access to the app was offered as a perk, according to people familiar with the company’s fundraising attempts.
Ton-That contends that Clearview is doing nothing wrong – that his app simply replicates what other search engines do. Instead of allowing internet users to search for people’s public images by name, as one can do on Google, he said, Clearview allows them to do the search by uploading a face.
For now, it’s a power that Clearview controls and can give out as it pleases. In October, Clearview asked Nicholas Cassimatis, an expert on artificial intelligence, to help conduct an internal accuracy test. He did the work for free, he said, because he knew Ton-That socially. The test consisted of submitting the faces of 834 federal and state legislators. Clearview’s algorithms accurately identified every one of the politicians.
After the test was complete, Cassimatis was allowed to keep Clearview’s app on his phone. He said he had since run dozens of searches. “I tested it in surprising places: smoky bars, dark places. And it worked every time,” Cassimatis said. “It’s road testing. I do it as a hobby. I ask people for permission. It’s like a parlour trick. People like it.”
– New York Times service