It’s Too Late to Regain Control of Your Image


This latest facial recognition freak-out started when The New York Times revealed that Clearview AI scraped billions photos off public social media accounts (and other sources) to feed their image-based crime-fighting system. Basically, law enforcement feeds an image into the Clearview AI system and it immediately identifies the face and matches it with personal information about that person.

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Facebook, Twitter, and others filed Cease and Desist orders to stop Clear AI’s data scraping.

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Perhaps in response to this blow back, Clearview AI tries on its web site to make its intentions crystal clear. It says, in a nutshell:

  • They use public information only
  • They’re focused on search, not surveillance
  • The system is designed to stop criminals
  • And protect the innocent
  • All their data is independently verified for accuracy
  • It’s also in full compliance with the law

If that all reads like “trying too hard,” you’re probably right. It’s also a bit of Clearview AI trying to get ahead of what’s coming.

News that Clearview AI is working with the FBI and law enforcement agencies across and even outside the U.S., as well as concerns over law enforcement’s use of Amazon’s Rekognition facial recognition system, has prompted calls for investigations and the drafting of Senators Cory Booker and Owen Merkley’s bill, which recommends a moratorium on using Facial Recognition until their new Commission drafts guidelines and limits for its use.

Your Part in This

There was a time when it was hard to collect data and build databases. Back in the ’90s, I remember trying to create databases for various product categories including appliances, technology, beauty products, and travel destinations. Most didn’t exist, and we had to painstakingly build them on our own.

Personal information for billions of people, including names, addresses, ages, relationships, schools they attended, and, most important, what they, their families, and friends look like has been shockingly easy to build and access.

By one measure, people post 350 million photos to Facebook each day. They also post at least 95 million photos a day to Instagram. Most of them are posted publicly. Of Instagram’s roughly 1 billion users, just a fraction of them are private accounts (one 2016 study estimated 300 million private accounts).

We have been sharing photos on social media for almost two decades. The rise of facial recognition technology coincided with our growing social media obsession. Starting in 2000, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology launched face recognition vendor tests. These early tests helped law enforcement and government agencies assess the efficacy and best uses for facial recognition. Four years later Facebook launched. Two years after that, Twitter.

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So What

Perhaps Booker and Merkley will succeed in at least keeping this facial recognition tool out of FBI and other government agency hands. It will do nothing to stop billions of people around the world from sharing images of themselves, their families, and their friends. Facebook will still scan and recognize everyone in the image and many, if not most, will tag their family and friends, potentially creating more data for Clearview AI and law enforcement.

If consumers were truly worried about their privacy, they’d leave social media today and demand that local governments shut down their CCTVs and their neighbors turn off their video doorbells. I don’t see that happening. For all the complaints about Facebook and other social media, people still like (even love) and use them every day and there are those who appreciate what law enforcement can do with the quick match between a fuzzy image and a criminal.

It’s not much solace for those whose identities are stolen or are unfairly targeted by law enforcement agencies, but I have a feeling most people are still willing to make the trade-off.