This company scraped social media to feed its AI facial recognition tool. Is that legal?

If its claims are true, Clearview AI has quietly blown right past privacy norms to become the nightmare many have been fearing.

Image source: pathdoc/Shutterstock/Big Think
  • Recent reporting has revealed the existence of a company that has probably scraped your personal data for its facial recognition database.
  • Though social platforms forbid it, the company has nonetheless collected personal data from everywhere it can.
  • The company's claims of accuracy and popularity with law enforcement agencies is a bit murky.

Your face is all over the internet in images you and others have posted. Also lots of personal information. For those concerned about all those pictures being matched somehow with all that information, there's some small comfort in public assertions by Google, Facebook, and other platforms that they won't use your data for nefarious purposes. Of course, taking the word of companies whose business model depends of data-mining is a bit of a reach.

Meanwhile, as revealed recently by the New York Times, with further reporting from BuzzFeed News and WIRED, one company called Clearview AI has been quietly scraping up much of this data — the company claims it has a database of 3 billion images collected from everywhere they can. Their sources presumably include all sorts of online sources, as well as all social platforms including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and so on. They even scrape Venmo, a particularly chilling revelation given the rigorous security one would expect a money-exchanging site to employ.

Combining their database with proprietary artificial intelligence, Clearview AI says it can identify a person from a picture nearly instantaneously, and are already selling their service to police departments for identifying criminals. You may think you own your face, but Clearview has probably already acquired it without your even knowing about it, much less granting them permission to do so.

Is this legal? And does it matter?

Image source: Anton Watman/Shutterstock

In terms of Federal law protecting one's personal data, the regulations are way behind today's digital realities. The controlling legislation appears to be the anti-hacking Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) enacted in 1984, well before the internet we know today. Prior to a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last year, the law had been used to fight automated data-scraping. However, that ruling determined that this type of scraping doesn't violate the CFAA.

Social media sites generally include anti-scraping stipulations in their user agreements, but these are hard — and perhaps impossible given programmers' ingenuity — to enforce. Twitter, whose policies explicitly forbid automated scraping for the purposes of constructing a database, recently ordered Clearview AI to knock it off. Given last year's CFAA ruling, though, sites have little legal recourse when their policies are violated. In any event, tech is a troublingly incestuous industry — for example, a Facebook board member, Peter Thiel, is one of Clearview AI's primary investors, so how motivated would such people really be to block mining of their data?

Is Clearview AI legit?

Image source: Clearview AI, through Atlanta public-records request by New York Times

Clearview has taken pains to remain off the public's radar, at least until the New York Times article appeared. Its co-founders long ago scrubbed their own social identities from the web, though one of them, Hoan Ton-That, has since reemerged online.

In efforts to remain publicly invisible while simultaneously courting law enforcement as customers for Clearview's services, the company has been quietly publishing an array of targeted promotional materials (The Times, BuzzFeed, and WIRED have acquired a number of these materials via Freedom of Information requests and through private individuals). The ads make some extraordinary and questionable claims regarding Clearview's accuracy, successes, and the number of law enforcement agencies with which it has contracts. Not least, of course, among questions about the company's integrity must be their extensive scraping of data from sites whose user agreements forbid it.

According to Clearview, over 600 law enforcement parties have used their product in the last year, though the company won't supply a list of them. There are a handful of confirmed clients, however, including the Indiana State Police. According to the department's then-captain, the police were able to identify the perpetrator in a shooting case in just 20 minutes thanks to Clearview's ability to find a video the man had posted of himself on social media. The department itself has officially declined to comment on the case for The New York Times. Police departments in Gainesville, Florida and Atlanta, Georgia are also among their confirmed customers.

Clearview has tried to impress potential customers with case histories that apparently aren't true. For example, they sent an email to prospective clients with the title, "How a Terrorism Suspect Was Instantly Identified With Clearview," describing how their software cracked a New York subway terrorism case. The NYPD says Clearview had nothing to do with it and that they used their own facial recognition system. Clearview even posted a video on Vimeo telling the story, which has since been removed. Clearview has also claimed several other successes that have been denied by the police departments involved.

There is skepticism regarding Clearview's claims of accuracy, a critical concern given that in this context a false positive can send an innocent person to jail. Clare Garvie, of Georgetown University's Center on Privacy and Technology, tells BuzzFeed, "We have no data to suggest this tool is accurate. The larger the database, the larger the risk of misidentification because of the doppelgänger effect. They're talking about a massive database of random people they've found on the internet."

Clearview has not submitted their results for independent verification, though a FAQ on their site claims that an "independent panel of experts rated Clearview 100% accurate across all demographic groups according to the ACLU's facial recognition accuracy methodology." In addition, the accuracy rating of facial recognition is usually derived from a combination of variables, including its ability to detect a face in an image, its correct-match rate, reject rate, non-match rate, and the false-match rate. As far as the FAQ claim, Garvie notes that "whenever a company just lists one accuracy metric, that is necessarily an incomplete view of the accuracy of their system."

Image source: Andre_Popov/Shutterstock

It may or may not be that Clearview is doing what they claim to be doing, and that their technology is really accurate and seeing increasing use by police departments. Regardless, there can be little doubt that the company and likely others are working toward the goal of making reliable facial recognition available to law enforcement and other government agencies (Clearview also reportedly pitches its product to private detectives).

This has many people concerned, as it represents a major blow to personal privacy. A bipartisan effort in the U.S. Senate has seemingly failed. In November 2019, Democrats introduced their own privacy bill of rights in the Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act (COPRA) while Republicans introduced their United States Consumer Data Privacy Act of 2019 (CDPA). States have also enacted or are in the process of considering new privacy legislation. Preserving personal privacy without unnecessarily constraining acceptable uses of data collection is complicated, and the law is likely to continue lagging behind technological reality.

In any event, the exposure of Clearview AI's system is pretty chilling, setting off alarms for anyone hoping to hold onto what's left of their personal privacy, at least for as long as it's possible to do so.

UPDATE: The ACLU announced on Thursday that it is suing Clearview in the state of Illinois. CNET reports that Illinois is the only state with a biometric privacy law, the Biometric Information Privacy Act, which requires "informed written consent" before companies can use someone's biometrics. "Clearview's practices are exactly the threat to privacy that the legislature intended to address, and demonstrate why states across the country should adopt legal protections like the ones in Illinois," the ACLU said in a statement.

For more on the suit, head over to the ACLU website.

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New research establishes an unexpected connection.

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Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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