In May 2019, an agent at the Department of Homeland Security received a trove of unsettling images. Found by Yahoo in a Syrian user’s account, the photos seemed to document the sexual abuse of a young girl. One showed a man with his head reclined on a pillow, gazing directly at the camera. The man appeared to be white, with brown hair and a goatee, but it was hard to really make him out; the photo was grainy, the angle a bit oblique. The agent sent the man’s face to child-crime investigators around the country in the hope that someone might recognize him.
When an investigator in New York saw the request, she ran the face through an unusual new facial-recognition app she had just started using, called Clearview AI. The team behind it had scraped the public web — social media, employment sites, YouTube, Venmo — to create a database with three billion images of people, along with links to the webpages from which the photos had come. This dwarfed the databases of other such products for law enforcement, which drew only on official photography like mug shots, driver’s licenses and passport pictures; with Clearview, it was effortless to go from a face to a Facebook account.
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The app turned up an odd hit: an Instagram photo of a heavily muscled Asian man and a female fitness model, posing on a red carpet at a bodybuilding expo in Las Vegas. The suspect was neither Asian nor a woman. But upon closer inspection, you could see a white man in the background, at the edge of the photo’s frame, standing behind the counter of a booth for a workout-supplements company. That was the match. On Instagram, his face would appear about half as big as your fingernail. The federal agent was astounded.
The agent contacted the supplements company and obtained the booth worker’s name: Andres Rafael Viola, who turned out to be an Argentine citizen living in Las Vegas. Another investigator found Viola’s Facebook account. His profile was public; browsing it, the investigator found photos of a room that matched one from the images, as well as pictures of the victim, a 7-year-old. Law-enforcement officers arrested Viola in June 2019. He later pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a child and producing images of the abuse and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. (Viola’s lawyer did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
At the time, the use of Clearview in Viola’s case was not made public; I learned about it recently, through court documents, interviews with law-enforcement officials and a promotional PowerPoint presentation that Clearview made. The case represented the technology’s first use on a child-exploitation case by Homeland Security Investigations, or H.S.I., which is the investigative arm of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. (Such crimes fall under the agency because, pre-internet, so much abuse material was being sent by mail internationally.) “It was an interesting first foray into our Clearview experience,” said Erin Burke, chief of H.S.I.’s Child Exploitation Investigations Unit. “There was no way we would have found that guy.”
Few outside law enforcement knew of Clearview’s existence back then. That was by design: The government often avoids tipping off would-be criminals to cutting-edge investigative techniques, and Clearview’s founders worried about the reaction to their product. Helping to catch sex abusers was clearly a worthy cause, but the company’s method of doing so — hoovering up the personal photos of millions of Americans — was unprecedented and shocking. Indeed, when the public found out about Clearview last year, in a New York Times article I wrote, an immense backlash ensued.
Facebook, LinkedIn, Venmo and Google sent cease-and-desist letters to the company, accusing it of violating their terms of service and demanding, to no avail, that it stop using their photos. BuzzFeed published a leaked list of Clearview users, which included not just law enforcement but major private organizations including Bank of America and the N.B.A. (Each says it only tested the technology and was never a client.) I discovered that the company had made the app available to investors, potential investors and business partners, including a billionaire who used it to identify his daughter’s date when the couple unexpectedly walked into a restaurant where he was dining.
Computers once performed facial recognition rather imprecisely, by identifying people’s facial features and measuring the distances among them — a crude method that did not reliably result in matches. But recently, the technology has improved significantly, because of advances in artificial intelligence. A.I. software can analyze countless photos of people’s faces and learn to make impressive predictions about which images are of the same person; the more faces it inspects, the better it gets. Clearview is deploying this approach using billions of photos from the public internet. By testing legal and ethical limits around the collection and use of those images, it has become the front-runner in the field. [Continue reading…]