Controversial Face Recognition Firm Clearview AI Is Teaming Up With U.S Immigration And Customs Enforcement

Photo:  Alex Wong, Getty Images
Photo: Alex Wong, Getty Images

In a pairing that has all the makings of a privacy and/or human rights nightmare waiting to happen, the dystopian facial recognition software maker Clearview AI secured an ongoing contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement this week.

ICE — the agency whose greatest hits include putting immigrant children in cages and threatening to kick international students out of the U.S. because of the pandemic — is paying Clearview AI $US224,000 ($312,278) for what’s only described as “mission support” and “Clearview licenses” in government contracting records first spotted by the nonprofit tech watchdog Tech Inquiry.

That likely translates to access to Clearview AI’s facial recognition software, which uses a database the firm claims is built on billions of photos scraped from the public web, including social media networks. Privacy advocates and leading tech companies alike have repeatedly decried Clearview AI’s shady data-gathering tactics, with Google, Facebook, and countless other sites filing cease-and-desist letters to the firm in February for violating their respective ToS agreements.

Also controversial is the firm’s close relationship with the police, particularly given that current face recognition tech is neither a) reliable enough to solve cases, b) regulated to any meaningful degree, or c) dissociable from racial profiling. A Buzzfeed investigation earlier this year found that Clearview had 2,200 contracts with law enforcement agencies, companies, and individuals across the globe. The company purportedly plays fast and loose with its facial recognition software too, previously telling cops to “run wild” with the tool and granting access to whatever rich investor wanted to poke through its database.

ICE’s history of using facial recognition tech has been just as controversial. Last month, the Washington Post reported that both ICE and the FBI had for years been quietly using millions of photos from driver’s licence databases for facial recognition requests in what the outlet called “the bedrock of an unprecedented surveillance infrastructure.”

The contract’s award notice cites the funding agency as Homeland Security Investigations, a branch of ICE responsible for investigating “cross-border criminal activity,” including human and weapon trafficking. In a statement to the Verge, Clearview AI CEO Hoan Ton-That said that the firm’s facial recognition tech will primarily be used in cases that involve minors:

“Clearview AI’s agreement is with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), which uses our technology for their Child Exploitation Unit and ongoing criminal investigations. Clearview AI has enabled HSI to rescue children across the country from sexual abuse and exploitation.”

Just to give you an idea of how ominous a team-up this is, to date Clearview AI has wracked up several lawsuits, including one from Vermont’s attorney general and another from the American Civil Liberties Union that alleges the firm illegally gathered data from Illinois citizens without their consent. The company made a clean break from its Canadian operations entirely last month after becoming the subject of multiple federal investigations there concerning its data-scrapping practices. In June, the European Data Protection Board said that Clearview AI’s products would “likely not be consistent with the EU data protection regime,” essentially squashing any plans it had of expanding into Europe.