Facial Recognition Is Searching for You Online

Clearview’s tech raises privacy concerns

Key Takeaways

  • The US government has granted a patent for facial recognition technology that allows software to crawl the internet. 
  • Clearview AI’s software is already used by law enforcement agencies and has prompted privacy concerns. 
  •  The White House is working to establish an AI Bill of Rights that could limit the use of facial recognition.
A person with facial recognition markings overlayed on their face.

David Malan / Getty Images

Your picture might soon be a lot more public. 

Clearview AI will get a federal patent for its facial recognition technology. The company says it is the first patent to cover a "search engine for faces" that crawls the internet to find matches. Some experts are raising red flags about the software. 

"Individuals sharing pictures of themselves, their friends and children, etc. on social media platforms often don't realize that the privacy policy of those companies allows them to share photos, and identity information, with companies like Clearview and others," James Hendler, a computer science professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the chair of the Association for Computing Machinery's Technology Policy Council, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

"Thus, for example," Hendler continued. "Someone using a site like TikTok or Twitter to share a video in which they are doing something may not realize that both their name and face are being shared, or when group photos are tagged, they may be sharing information about other people who might prefer not to be identified."

People Search

Clearview's software pulls public images from social media to help law enforcement match images in government databases or surveillance footage. The US Patent and Trademark Office recently sent Clearview a "notice of allowance" on Wednesday, meaning it will approve the company's patent, Politico reported.   

The patent covers Clearview's "methods for providing information about a person based on facial recognition," including its automated web crawler that searches networking sites and the internet and the methods it uses to analyze and match facial images found online.

While Clearview has previously been criticized for using facial recognition by law enforcement agencies, the company says in the patent application that the technology can be used for many purposes. Clearview claims 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."

A study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology found that AI misidentifies women and people of color up to 10 to 100 times more often than white men. "This raises concerns about the potential of discrimination and biased prosecution based on gender and ethnicity," Daniel Markuson, a digital privacy expert at NordVPN, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

Privacy Backlash

Some observers say the growing use of facial recognition software like Clearview's could erode privacy. 

"Keeping society safe comes at a cost, and many are still raising concerns about how agencies will use Clearview's technology," Markuson said. "In this case, the technology in question is still very much a work in progress, and governments need to take extreme precautions going forward." 

Someone using facial recognition on a smartphone while outdoors in a city at night.

imaginima / Getty Images

Facial recognition technology isn't new, pointed out Stephen Ritter, CTO of identity verification company Mitek, in an email interview with Lifewire. Facebook recently stepped back from similar recognition technology that used face-based searching and face tagging in photos. But the fact that Clearview's software automatically searches for faces on the internet raises concerns, he said. 

"All of a person's facial information that might be available via the Internet could be used to (correctly or incorrectly) connect you to some other activity," he added. "Clearview claims it is to help law enforcement, but the company has been known to sell to other businesses and industries willing to pay."

Some politicians are seeking limits on facial recognition. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is working to establish an AI Bill of Rights. Under the bill, companies like Clearview should be liable for any violations of personal rights, laws and regulations, and errors created by accuracy issues of algorithmic bias in their solution.

There are many things policymakers could do to protect users' rights, for example, making it more transparent what can be shared under what conditions and who needs to be informed or give permission, Hendler said. 

"Users who care about their rights should make sure to contact their representatives, at all governmental levels, and ask questions about these things," he added.

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