Few technologies have generated more controversy than facial recognition. However, Clearview AI looks set to get a patent on its facial recognition software despite many pushbacks.
According to the company, it has got the go-ahead for the first federal patent for software used for facial recognition. The software pulls publicly available images from social media networks to assist law enforcement in comparing images in official databases or obtained from surveillance footage.
Clearview AI got a notice of allowance from the US Patent and Trademark Office, which indicates the patent will be awarded when it pays the administrative fees. The patent is granted to Clearview AI for “methods of providing information about a person based on facial recognition,” covering how the software crawls over the internet to pick up images and the algorithm that analyzes and matches the photos.
Critics have pointed out several problems with the software. For one, Clearview AI’s software uses people’s images without obtaining consent. Other flaws include being prone to error, which could have devastating consequences for innocent people caught in the web. Such software also misidentifies women and people from minority groups more than white males.
However, an audit conducted by the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology proved that Clearview AI’s results were highly accurate. The company itself boasts its software has never been responsible for a wrongful arrest.
Clearview AI’s technology has been deployed by many crime-busting agencies and bodies in the US, with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security on the company’s list of clients. About ten other federal agencies plan to use the software more in the coming years.
Clearview AI has, however, faced the wrath of foreign governments, including Australia and the UK, who accuse it of violating their privacy and data protection laws. Even private companies have lashed out at Clearview AI, as Twitter, Google, YouTube, and LinkedIn have asked the company to stop lifting photos from their platforms. Facebook was working on similar software, but it shut down the project and has also asked Clearview AI to stop accessing its platform users’ photos.
What is bothering many experts is that granting Clearview AI a patent in a way legitimizes such solutions and will encourage efforts to make more like it.
Senator Ed Markey has led the effort to put a stop to the use of Clearview AI’s type of software but has seen support die out for his cause. He said, “Facial recognition technology is metastasizing throughout the federal government, and I am deeply concerned about this trend towards increased surveillance.”
One of Clearview AI’s patent critics is Matt Mahmoudi, a researcher with Amnesty International. He works to ban the use of facial recognition. He said, “The part that they’re looking to protect is exactly the part that’s the most problematic. They are patenting the very part of it that’s in violation of international human rights law.”
He added, “It shows a willingness to go down a slippery slope of basically being available in any context.”
Clearview AI’s co-founder and CEO, Hoan Ton-That, defends his company’s product. “There are other facial recognition patents out there — that are methods of doing it — but this is the first one around the use of large-scale internet data,” he told POLITICO. He also claimed he understood people’s fear of mistaken identity as he is of mixed descent.
Ton-That also argues all the data Clearview AI uses are available publicly. “All information in our datasets are all publicly available info that people voluntarily posted online — it’s not anything on your private camera roll. If it was all private data, that would be a completely different story.”
He added that the software is only meant for government use and would never be sold to private individuals or companies. This claim, however, goes against Clearview AI’s claim in the patent application, where it alluded to consumer use cases, arguing that “it may be desirable for an individual to know more about a person that they meet, such as through business, dating, or other relationship. As а result, an improved method and system for obtaining information about а person and selectively providing that information based on predetermined criteria is urgently needed.” It further explained that Clearview AI’s software could fix the problem of new acquaintances giving false information.