Chuck Johnson, the conservative activist, writer, and founder of several failed web platforms, is known to swim in a cesspool of right-wing drama. The 32-year-old allegedly played a role in former President Trump’s transition team, has connections to Breitbart and Matt Gaetz, and has long enjoyed the role of far-right provocateur (he was one of the first people to get kicked off of Twitter for saying various terrible things, and has been widely maligned for spreading fake news stories that targeted Democratic figures).
Well, there seems to be a new accomplishment Johnson can add to his resume of awful exploits: helping to found sketchy surveillance giant Clearview AI.
Per a report from the New York Times, Johnson claims to have contributed to the formation of the notorious security firm, helping to connect founder Hoan Ton-That to key principals like tech billionaire and funder Peter Thiel and entrepreneur Richard Schwartz (who would go on to become a co-founder of the company).
(Disclosure: Peter Thiel financed a lawsuit that resulted in the bankruptcy of Gizmodo’s former parent company, Gawker Media.)
Clearview, which sells high-powered facial recognition software to police departments across the country, hasn’t exactly been able to hide its far-right ties. Previous reporting has shown founder Ton-That cavorted with Johnson and with white supremacist figure Richard Spencer, among other alt-right figures. However, the idea that Johnson, largely considered a far-right “troll,” was partially responsible for creating the company, takes this association to an entirely new level.
Johnson told the Times that he “considers himself a third co-founder of Clearview” and that he helped connect Ton-That to individuals who would play key roles in the company, including Thiel (who became an early financial backer) and Schwartz.
According to Johnson, he and Ton-That first made contact in 2016 when Ton-That reached out to him via email, claiming to be an “admirer of Johnson’s work.” The two later decided to hang out during the weekend of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. According to Johnson, the two proceeded to get drunk at a local rental house, and the night devolved into Ton-That playing guitar while they both mused about certain weird ideas that (Johnson says) would later culminate in the founding of Clearview. The Times reports:
While Johnson and Ton-That hung out at the rental house, they mused about discredited sciences that could be explored in the modern age with new technologies. At one point, the conversation turned to physiognomy, the pseudoscientific judgment of a person’s character based on their facial features. “Hoan played music,” Johnson said. “We all drank a lot.” He added, “That was where a lot of ideas that became Smartcheckr, and then Clearview, began.”
Shortly after the rental house episode, Johnson claims he set up a meeting between Thiel and Ton-That; he then introduced him to Schwartz via email. Approximately seven months later, Schwartz apparently emailed Johnson “draft formation documents” for a new company called Smartchekr which “granted equal ownership to Schwartz, Ton-That, and Johnson.”
Initially, the point of the company was to create “an app to identify faces,” Johnson said. Another person close to the company apparently told the Times that “in its early days” the founders of the company “wanted to dig up dirt on liberals,” though Johnson denies this. Other sources seem to suggest the company originally considered specializing in micro-targeting and political consulting, but eventually decided to invest in biometric surveillance instead, the Times reports.
At some point, the company changed its name, reconfigured, and Johnson—who had floated in and out of touch with the operation—had his role reduced. In 2018:
The founders dissolved the LLC they formed in New York and asked Johnson to sign a “wind-down and transfer agreement,” which converted his one-third ownership in Smartcheckr LLC into a 10% stake in Clearview AI. The contract also entitled him to a 10% sales commission on any customers he introduced to the company, though Johnson hasn’t been paid a commission. The wind-down agreement, which Johnson provided to me, requires him not to “publicly disclose the existence of this agreement, his indirect ownership of the shares or his prior provision of services to the company.” It is signed by Johnson, Ton-That and Schwartz.
According to the Times, Clearview disputes certain parts of Johnson’s narrative. Ton-That apparently acknowledged to the newspaper that he had met Johnson in 2016 and that the conservative blogger had helped “introduced people to the company.” He denied, however, that Johnson was a “founder” or that he had an “operational role” in the company. You can read the whole Times story here.