Only the Government Can Save Us From Clearview A.I.

And how to stop the end of anonymity

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

This story was written in response to the article “The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It” by Kashmir Hill in the New York Times.

If you’re still unsure why privacy is so damn important, my guess is you’re one of these people whom Kara Swisher described last year:

Far too many of the people who have designed the wondrous parts of the internet — thinking up cool new products to make our lives easier, distributing them across the globe, and making fortunes doing so — have never felt unsafe a day in their lives.

I’d personally given up on trying to convince people that privacy was everyone’s problem until I came across this brilliant piece of investigative reporting:

Truly, what could be more insidious and dystopian than a Peter Thiel-backed startup — co-founded by Rudy Giuliani’s former aid — that combines A.I. and facial recognition to help cops match photos of unknown people to their photos scraped from Facebook and other social media sites? Obviously, without their consent.

The company, called Clearview, licenses its product to law enforcement agencies, and Hill writes that in the past year, more than 600 law enforcement agencies have started using Clearview without public scrutiny. And though law enforcement use of facial recognition technology isn’t new, access to this quantum of searchable photos is. As Hill pointed out with documents she’d received and posted in the Times, Clearview’s product is a game-changer for law enforcement.

When I read this article, I was mortified, but it was hard to know who to blame. The founders of Clearview, of course, for even coming up with such an invasive product, but given the United States’ capitalistic culture (money over morals, computer science over civics), lack of regulation (what privacy?), and easy access to computers (A.I. for everyone!), it was only a matter of time before this product was built. Since the product seems to “work,” law enforcement wouldn’t be blamed, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) only tests algorithms it is provided.

That leaves Facebook (the largest source of images of random people) and the government*, which has failed to bring justice to the American people in the form of privacy or platform regulation post-Cambridge Analytica. Facebook knowingly allows Clearview to violate its terms of service and the entire internet economy is taking advantage of this loophole. The U.S. government, meanwhile, kicks and screams about Chinese versus American values while allowing unfettered digital surveillance infrastructure to be built all around us in the form of “consumer internet companies.”

But this time, we must also blame ourselves. As we upload more public content to social media platforms, we are complicit in the creation of this dystopia by using the surveillance infrastructure and not demanding enough from our lawmakers.

My goal these days is to shake the unshakeable, but sometimes I fear that people have already given up. That at some point in the not-so-distant future, it will be just as socially acceptable and easy to “search someone by face” as it is to Google by name. That will be the new normal.

As Hill writes:

Even if Clearview doesn’t make its app publicly available, a copycat company might now that the taboo is broken… Strangers would be able to listen in on sensitive conversations, take photos of the participants, and know personal secrets. Someone walking down the street would be immediately identifiable — and his or her home address would be only a few clicks away. It would herald the end of public anonymity.

I believe there is power and safety in anonymity. Given the machinations of American tech entrepreneurs, the only thing that can protect this sacred last space for those that need it is a strong federal consumer privacy law. This law must also allow us to protect ourselves through a private right of action because, as we’ve seen, we cannot always rely on the government to act in our best interest.

If you haven’t already, please write to your member of Congress.

*It would be unfair to blanketly blame all of government for inaction when many brilliant members of Congress have also been kicking and screaming for strong federal privacy laws. Also, we’re still learning about what happened in 2016 since a lot of crucial information is just now being released. And finally, some have argued that Congress isn’t “tech-savvy enough” to pass sophisticated legislation. That all being said, I think lawmakers are overly concerned with protecting industry rather than the American people, and though culturally we are much different than Europeans, it would be wise to borrow from the E.U.’s General Data Protection Regulation rather than recreating a privacy law from scratch. • Soon: @digidems for @mtdems • Formerly: @google @googleafrica @DiscoverElement #obama08 • Brooklyn, NY

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