More than 2,400 police agencies have entered contracts with Clearview AI, a controversial facial recognition firm, according to comments made by Clearview AI CEO Hoan Ton-That in an interview with Jason Calacanis on YouTube.
The hour-long interview references an investigation by The New York Times published in January, which detailed how Clearview AI scraped data from sites including Facebook, YouTube, and Venmo to build its database. The scale of that database and the methods used to construct it were already controversial before the summer of protests against police violence. “It’s an honor to be at the center of the debate now and talk about privacy,” Ton-That says in the interview, going on to call the Times investigation “actually extremely fair.” “Since then, there’s been a lot of controversy, but fundamentally, this is such a great tool for society,” Ton-That says.
Ton-That also gave a few more details on how the business runs. Clearview is paid depending on how many licenses a client adds, among other factors, but Ton-That describes the licenses as “pretty inexpensive, compared to what’s come previously” in his interview. Ton-That ballparks Clearview’s fees as $2,000 a year for each officer with access. According to Ton-That, Clearview AI is primarily used by detectives.
The interview was taped in May, but Calacanis didn’t release it until today. That’s because it took place the morning after George Floyd was killed by police. “Once the protests started in America, and we were watching these anti-racism protesters, we decided we might hold the interview because it didn’t feel like the right time,” Calacanis says in the video. “Maybe things would settle down and people could think about the software as something that could theoretically help police departments as opposed to help them do something like identify peaceful protesters.”
As it happens, Clearview AI was used at least once to identify protesters in Miami. The Miami police department’s policy is that facial recognition won’t be used to monitor people engaged in “constitutionally protected activities” like protesting — as long as the person in question doesn’t commit a crime. The person who was arrested is accused by police of throwing two rocks at police officers.
Facial recognition was also used by the New York Police Department to arrest an activist during the Black Lives Matter uprising this summer. According to a BuzzFeed News report in February, NYPD was at the time the largest user of Clearview AI — where more than 30 officers had Clearview accounts.
Earlier this month, Clearview AI added Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to its roster of clients. It is focusing primarily on law enforcement as clients, after discontinuing service to private companies in May.