Technology

Clearview AI’s threat to privacy

Spying

Until recently, Canada’s Federal Police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) was buying facial recognition services from American tech company, Clearview AI—founded by known phisher and racist alt-right extremist Hoan Ton-That. As a paid subscriber, the RCMP was an enthusiastic user of the facial recognition software until the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) ordered them to cease all operations in Canada.

The RCMP wasn’t Clearview AI’s only client—Toronto and Calgary Police also used their services. In fact, over 30 law enforcement agencies in Canada used the service and now the OPC is investigating the RCMP for privacy violations. It’s unsettling to know that Canadian law enforcement so brazenly disregarded Canadian privacy laws.

With recent allegations of racist abuse—both externally and internally—maybe it’s not surprising that the RCMP was comfortable using Clearwater AI—a company that was built by neo-Nazis. That’s right, Clearview AI is connected to (and has even employed) known racists and white nationalists such as Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, Daily Stormer webmaster Andrew “weev” Auernheimer, and former Breitbart writer Chuck Johnson.

Mike Cernovich’s tweet showing Chuck Johnson and Hoan Ton-That flashing the “OK” sign makes Clearview AI’s alt-right connections clear.

Clearview AI

What’s even more disturbing is how Clearview AI obtained its vast facial library. Scraping virtually every search engine and social media site, and explicitly violating Terms of Service in the process—Clearview AI grabbed every face they could. In 2020, Twitter sent Clearview AI a cease-and-desist letter, along with demands that all data collected from their service be deleted—YouTube and Facebook followed suit the next month.

Despite this controversy, law enforcement all over North America stuck by Clearview AI. They did so even as it became apparent that Clearview AI was surveilling law enforcement’s use of their service. Giving racists this kind of access to law enforcement is a deal with the devil if I’ve ever heard one.

Another cause for concern is that Clearview AI has recently pitched itself as a technology for COVID-19 contact tracing. I recently wrote about how contact tracing could violate civil liberties. With US federal and state governments signalling their enthusiasm for the technology, my fears are well-founded. Internet law professor Jonathan Zittrain may call Clearview AI’s pivot a “rogue actor turning into a hero” but from where I stand, the rogue remains a rogue.

Who’s funding Clearview AI’s operations? Palantir co-founder and surveillance enthusiast Peter Thiel. I’ve mentioned his name many times. He’s the fellow who brokered a lunch between Donald Trump and Mark Zuckerberg. Peter Thiel, an early Facebook investor, is waging a war against privacy as a fundamental human right.

The New York Times says that Clearview AI might end privacy as we know it. This might be true for other parts of the world, including the USA. However, in Canada, privacy lives for another day.

Let’s hope that the powers that be do everything to ensure our privacy lives on indefinitely.

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