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US Senator questions Clearview AI over sales to authoritarian regimes

US Senator Edward Markey has asked controversial facial recognition company Clearview AI if it plans to sell its facial recognition software outside of the US, and how it would guarantee that its technology is not used to abuse human rights. Selling to authoritarian regimes “raise[s] a number of concerns because you would risk enabling foreign governments to conduct mass surveillance and suppress their citizens”, Markey wrote in a letter dated March 3. This follows a Buzzfeed News report which said that the company was selling its technology to law enforcement agencies, government bodies and police forces in 27 countries including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and India.

Markey raised concerns about Clearview AI potentially collecting children’s images and if Clearview AI was planning to integrate its technology with live facial recognition tools. Further, he inquired if the company would be willing to submit its technology for an independent assessment of accuracy and bias by facial recognition experts.

“Clearview [AI] is a clear outlier: it scrapes billions of photos from social media sites rather than using relatively limited sets of photos from existing government databases. This is why I am particularly worried that foreign sales of your technology might exacerbate the global trend towards mass surveillance and human rights suppression.” — Senator Markey

Other questions that Markey raised:

  1. Is Clearview AI in compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)?
  2. Does Clearview AI have reasonable procedures to protect the confidentiality, security, and integrity of personal information collected from children under 13?
  3. Did hackers gain access to Clearview AI’s facial images or other personally identifiable data when it was hacked last month? (The company’s entire client list was stolen by an intruder last month)
  4. Who are the “select security professionals” that Clearview AI sells its facial recognition software to? (Clearview AI claims that it sells only to law enforcement agencies and “select security professionals”)
  5. Will the company delete users’ images from its database without requiring their headshot and government ID?

Read More: Vadodara City Police planning to use Clearview AI’s facial recognition software

Senator Markey also said that Clearview AI’s responses to an earlier letter sent by him were “dubious” and “unacceptable”. In January, he had requested information from Clearview AI, including a full list of any entities and law enforcement agencies currently using the technology, as well as details on any past security breaches and on Clearview’s employee access privileges. Markey has previously also written to Amazon raising concerns about its security doorbell camera Ring’s partnership with police.

Clearview AI scrapes facial images from the public internet

Clearview AI’s controversial facial recognition software requires a user to feed a person’s image into it, and then pulls out all matching faces from its database. The software pulls facial data from all publicly available images online, including from Twitter, Facebook, Google, Instagram, YouTube, news articles, and more. The result is a database of unprecedented scale — over 3 billion images to be exact — to potentially identify any person walking on the street, with just a single image.

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The company had first come under the scanner when New York Times reported in January that the service was built by collecting images from across the web. Following the revelation, Twitter had sent a cease and desist letter to Clearview AI, asking it to stop scraping content from the platform, and delete existing photos it had stored, followed by similar notices by Google, YouTube and Facebook.

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