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AI Company Scraped 30 Billion Facebook Pictures and Sold Them to the Cops

by Jordan Arizmendi

Clearview AI is a surveillance technology used by at least 2,400 law enforcement agencies. Its CEO Hoan Ton-That recently said, in a BBC interview, that Clearview AI has fed its AI algorithm with 30 billion Facebook photos. Because there are fewer than three billion Facebook users, we can all be confident that every image we have ever posted on social media, from our 10th birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese to our sister’s wedding, is being studied by law enforcement somewhere.

We put photos of ourselves on Facebook that we are especially proud of. After all, these are the images that our friends, family, and significant others will be admiring. But in secret – in a cold, dark, and indifferent office – a group of strangers is carefully examining these photos. In some cases, this questionable access, misled by a chain of questionable algorithms, is destroying lives, affiliating innocent individuals with nefarious and illegal activities.

Despite this alarming invasion of privacy, no laws have been broken. All the images swirling around the gigantic Clearview AI cloud have been lawfully collected. Ton-That likened the way Clearview AI attains its images to “any other search engine like Google.”

To make this story even more unsettling, more than 3,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies have used the database. Law enforcement uses the technology to locate a culprit of dozens of offenses, from murder to shoplifting. In an ideal world, such technology would heroically solve every crime to be tossed on the detective’s desk.

Strip all the bells and whistles away though, Clearview AI is nothing more than a massive collection of identifiers – names, loosely coagulated with images. Clearview AI has collected a reservoir of millions of people’s photos and has sold this data to law enforcement, with the aim of helping law enforcement in locking those people up.

Since we are dealing with technology, hiccups and errors are inevitable. However, if crumby technology causes your television to break, that’s one thing, but when an faulty algorithm can result in an innocent person being arrested, the damage in incalculable.

“Clearview is a total affront to peoples’ rights, full stop, and police should not be able to use this tool,” Caitlin Seeley George, the director of campaigns and operations for the nonprofit digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future told Insider.


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