A billionaire said he spied on his daughter’s date using a secretive and controversial facial-recognition app that the company insisted was used only by law enforcement

John Catsimatidis and his wife, Margo. Patrick McMullan/Getty Images
  • A startup that scraped billions of images from major web services – including Facebook, Google, and YouTube – created software that can be loaded onto smartphones to identify people using publicly available photos.
  • In one stunning example, the billionaire supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis used the tool to identify his daughter’s mystery date at Cipriani, a swanky restaurant in downtown Manhattan, in October 2018.
  • “I wanted to make sure he wasn’t a charlatan,” Catsimatidis told The New York Times.
  • The company that created the software, Clearview AI, has said it intended its software for use by law enforcement. But several recent reports have indicated a far wider clientele, including a string of billionaire investors.
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When John Catsimatidis was finishing dinner in October 2018 at Cipriani in downtown Manhattan, he spotted something amiss: His daughter was also eating dinner there, on a date with an unknown man.

“I wanted to make sure he wasn’t a charlatan,” Catsimatidis, the billionaire owner of the Gristedes chain of supermarkets, told The New York Times.

He asked the waiter to snap a photo of the man without their knowing, then used his smartphone to instantly identify him using a secretive facial-recognition app. He then texted the man’s biography to his daughter.

“My date was very surprised,” his daughter, Andrea, said.

And indeed he should have been; John Catsimatidis was using an unreleased piece of software with potentially catastrophic privacy implications.

Clearview AI in action
Clearview AI’s app being demonstrated on CBS. CBS This Morning

The software is produced by a tech startup named Clearview AI, which has faced major pushback over its data-gathering tactics since The Times reported on them in January. 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 and saved by Clearview AI. That searchable database is then sold to police departments and federal agencies, Clearview says, but new reports have indicated that it’s also given access to other clients, including billionaires like Catsimatidis, retail chains like Walmart and Macy’s, the NBA, and even some high schools.

According to The Times, Catsimatidis was one of several prospective investors who were given access to the app; he said he had access through a friend who cofounded the company. Peter Thiel, David Scalzo, Hal Lambert, and the actor turned investor Ashton Kutcher were also listed in the report as either having access or being suspected of having access to the app.

Many of the billions of photos Clearview scraped from the internet weren’t intended for use in a commercially sold, searchable database. The company says it pulls its photos from “the open web,” including services like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

Facial recognition
Facial-recognition technology has existed for years, but searchable databases tied to facial recognition are new. APPhoto/Mike Derer

Companies in charge of the services it pulls from have issued cease-and-desist letters to Clearview, saying they have provisions spelled out in their user agreements to prevent this type of misuse.

“YouTube’s Terms of Service explicitly forbid collecting data that can be used to identify a person,” Alex Joseph, a YouTube representative, told Business Insider in an email last month. “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, and Facebook sent one in February.

Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That has argued 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 last month. “The way that we have built our system is to only take publicly available information and index it that way.”