Clearview AI plans to put almost every human face in its database

17 Feb 2022

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The company is said to be moving for ‘rapid international expansion’ despite regulatory pressure around the world surrounding facial recognition technology.

Controversial facial recognition company Clearview AI has reportedly told investors it is on track to have 100bn facial photos in its database within a year. This would be enough to identify “almost everyone in the world”, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.

Clearview AI, which describes itself as “the world’s largest facial network”, has built a database that currently holds more than 10bn “publicly available facial images” taken from the web.

Future Human

It works with customers such as law enforcement agencies to compare facial data against its database. The US-based company has said this database is the “largest known of its kind in its industry”.

A financial presentation the company created last December goes further than this publicly available statement. In this document, Clearview claimed it already has 11 times more facial recognition data than any government or non-government entity today.

The facial recognition company claimed to be “achieving rapid international expansion”. It said it has more than 3,000 security and law enforcement customers in the US, including the FBI and ICE, according to documents shared by Washington Post tech reporter Drew Harwell on Twitter.

“With $50m from investors, the company said, it could bulk up its data collection powers to 100bn photos, build new products, expand its international sales team and pay more toward lobbying government policymakers to ‘develop favorable [sic] regulation,’” The Washington Post reported.

Clearview’s technology roadmap goes even further, with plans to develop services such as licence plate recognition, movement tracking and contactless fingerprint recognition.

Last month, Clearview AI announced that it was awarded a US patent for a facial recognition capability that performed “nearly flawlessly” in vendor tests.

Growing regulatory pressure

While Clearview AI has ambitious goals for expansion, it has been facing stiff criticism and pressure from watchdogs around the world.

In 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illnois filed a lawsuit against the company, alleging it violated the privacy rights of citizens. The ACLU said the case was filed after a New York Times investigation revealed details of the company’s tracking and surveillance tools.

Last November, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office said Clearview’s database  is “likely to include the data of a substantial number of people from the UK”, with images that may have been gathered without people’s knowledge from sources such as social media platforms. Clearview was facing a potential £17m fine for “serious breaches” of data privacy laws.

In the same month, Australia’s top information authority ordered Clearview AI to stop collecting facial images and biometric templates of Australian citizens, and to delete what data it already has.

“The covert collection of this kind of sensitive information is unreasonably intrusive and unfair,” said Australia’s privacy commissioner, Angelene Falk, at the time.

Australia and the UK are not the only countries where Clearview AI faces regulatory scrutiny. Last February, Canada’s federal privacy commissioner deemed the company’s practices illegal, saying it collected facial images of Canadians without their consent.

In recent years, concerns have been raised about facial recognition technology in terms of surveillance, privacy, consent, accuracy and bias.

Last year, EU proposals for regulating AI were met with criticism by EU watchdogs for not going far enough when it comes to live facial recognition in public places. The European Parliament then called for a ban on biometric mass surveillance technologies, such as facial recognition tools, citing the threat these technologies can present to human rights.

Facebook parent company Meta announced last November that it will delete face recognition data from more than 1bn users collected over a decade, and those who opted in for the face recognition feature will no longer be automatically recognised in photos and videos on the platform.

In July 2020, IBM said it would scrap its facial recognition and analysis software, saying it opposed the use of technology for mass surveillance or racial profiling.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com