- A software startup that scraped billions of images from major web services – including Facebook, Google, and YouTube – is selling its tool to law enforcement agencies across the United States.
- The point of the tool is to match unknown faces with publicly available photos, thus identifying crime suspects.But the startup, Clearview AI, has faced major criticism for the way it obtains images: By taking them without permission from major services like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
- Twitter, Google, and YouTube say that the method violates their terms of service agreements, and all three have sent cease-and-desist letters to the company.
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Police departments across the United States are paying tens of thousands of dollars apiece for access to software that identifies faces using images scraped from major web platforms like Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
The software is produced by a relatively unknown tech startup named Clearview AI, and the company is facing major pushback over its data-gathering tactics, which were earlier reported by The New York Times. It pulls images from the web and social media platforms, without permission, to create its own, searchable database.
Put simply: The photos that you uploaded to your Facebook profile could’ve been ripped from your page, saved, and added to this company’s photo database.
Photos of you, photos of friends and family – all of it – is scraped from publicly available social media platforms, among other places, and saved by Clearview AI. That searchable database is then sold to police departments and federal agencies.
This, of course, was not the intention of services like YouTube and Twitter. They even have provisions explicitly spelled out in their user agreements to prevent this type of misuse. And those services are pushing back on Clearview by issuing cease-and-desist letters to the startup.
“YouTube’s Terms of Service explicitly forbid collecting data that can be used to identify a person,” YouTube spokesperson Alex Joseph told Business Insider in an email on Wednesday morning. “Clearview has publicly admitted to doing exactly that, and in response we sent them a cease and desist letter.”
Twitter sent a similar letter in late January, according to The New York Times. Representatives for Facebook didn’t respond to a request for comment.
But Clearview AI CEO Hoan Ton-That argues that his company’s software isn’t doing anything illegal, and doesn’t need to delete any of the images it has stored, because it’s protected under US law. “There is a First Amendment right to public information,” he told CBS This Morning in an interview published on Wednesday morning. “The way that we have built our system is to only take publicly available information and index it that way.”
As for his response to the cease-and-desist letters? “Our legal counsel has reached out to them, and are handling it accordingly.”
Ton-That said that Clearview’s software is being used by “over 600 law enforcement agencies across the country” already. Contracts to use the service cost as much as $US50,000 for a two-year deal.
Clearview AI’s lawyer, Tor Ekeland, told Business Insider in an emailed statement, “Clearview is a photo search engine that only uses publicly available data on the Internet. It operates in much the same way as Google’s search engine. We are in receipt of Google and YouTube’s letter and will respond accordingly.”
Check out the full interview from CBS This Morning right here:
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