Clearview AI founder Hoan Ton-That.
Clearview AI founder Hoan Ton-That.
Screenshot: PBS

Canadian authorities are investigating shady face recognition company Clearview AI on the grounds that its scraping of billions of photos from the web might violate privacy laws, Reuters reported on Friday.

According to Reuters, privacy commissioners from the Canadian federal government and of the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, and Québec have all agreed to launch a joint investigation into the company’s activities. In a statement, the commissioners wrote that Clearview’s data scraping, along with admissions by Canadian law enforcement that they have used the service in police work, “raised questions and concerns about whether the company is collecting and using personal information without consent.” Laws that they believe may have been violated include Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) and regional laws concerning the use of user data in Quebec.

The privacy commissioners say they will also be looking into alleged use of Clearview’s tools in the financial sector, though they did not release additional information about what practices they are investigating.

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Clearview and its CEO, Hoan Ton-That, claim to have scraped billions of photos from platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Venmo, and Google via the public web without anyone’s consent—and that they have the right to do so in the U.S. thanks to the First Amendment. (This argument ignores that while data scraping is generally legal in the U.S., the original rights holders of the photos involved may have cause for action.)

In Canada, however, privacy laws mandate that most organizations obtain informed consent from individuals whose data is being collected. Clearview’s scraping techniques and business model more or less relies on just... not doing that, with founder David Scalzo of backer Kirenaga Partners telling reporters that “there’s never going to be privacy” and that “Sure, that might lead to a dystopian future or something, but you can’t ban it.” That dystopian future could include things like furthering racial bias in policing and invasive mass surveillance of public spaces, or face recognition tech being used as evidence in criminal cases despite it being prone to errors and misidentification.

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BuzzFeed News reports that Ton-That is a Donald Trump supporter and photos appear to show he hung out with far-right personalities such as alt-right troll Chuck Johnson and Pizzagate promoter Mike Cernovich. The New York Times reported that Clearview also pitched an older version of its tool to the congressional campaign of Paul Nehlen, who’s known for espousing anti-Semitic and white nationalist views, in late 2017, saying it could use “unconventional databases” for “extreme opposition research.”

Over 600 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. ranging from local police departments to the FBI and Department of Homeland Security have reportedly signed contracts with Clearview; Twitter has ordered the company to stop scraping data off its servers, while the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office has ordered cops to stop using it, making it the first state to do so. In Canada, police in Toronto recently admitted they use the company’s technology (after first denying it). The department has since said it ordered officers to stop using it. Brenda McPhail of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association told CBC Radio that privacy commissioners are almost certain to find the technology violates privacy law.

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“I would be profoundly surprised if the privacy commissioner felt that this was an appropriate technology for use in a Canadian context,” McPhail told CBC. “I find it hard to imagine that this would pass a privacy impact assessment.”

She added that Clearview’s images “are arguably collected illegally” and that police are “legally bound to obey our laws and our charter of rights and freedoms. ... Using those images for police to conduct investigations, and ultimately prosecutions, is a problem.”

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Canadian officials appear to be planning an aggressive response. Privacy commissioners from every region in Canada, the statement to media read, have agreed “to develop guidance for organizations—including law enforcement—on the use of biometric technology, including facial recognition.”

Correction: A previous version of this article inaccurately attributed a quote to Ton-That. The person who made the “dystopian future” remark was Kirenaga Partners founder David Scalzo.

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"... An upperclassman who had been researching terrorist groups online." - Washington Post

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