By: Matt Romano

Google, YouTube and Twitter have all sent cease and desist orders to controversial facial recognition app Clearview AI in an effort to stop it taking images to help police

In September of last year, I wrote about law enforcement’s growing use of facial recognition technology and the need for federal regulation on the issue.[1]  Last month, Kashmir Hill of the New York Times reported on one facial recognition app in particular that led a privacy professor at Stanford Law to state, “Absent a very strong privacy law, we’re all screwed.”[2] The app is called Clearview AI, and it is now being used by over six hundred law enforcement agencies around the country ranging from local cops to the FBI.[3] Using Clearview AI, law enforcement input an image of a suspect or victim, and it is compared to a database of images to find a match.[4] What separates this app from other facial recognition software used by law enforcement is where the images in the database come from.[5]  Unlike other image databases that are compiled of mugshots or drivers licenses photos, Clearview AI scrapes image of people from millions of websites including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even Venmo.[6] This method of colleting images has allowed the app to create a database that dwarfs all other databases on the market with over 3 billion images.[7]

Facebook and other social media sites prohibit scraping users’ images like this in their terms of service, but Clearview is doing it anyway.[8]  In defense of his company’s actions, the app’s creator Hoan Ton-That claims that the company has a First Amendment right to access data in the public domain.[9]  Since this statement and Hill’s article, Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter have all sent cease-and-desist letters to Clearview demanding it to stop scraping from their sites.[10] So we will probably find out soon if Ton-That is right. In the meantime, it is pretty safe to assume that if you’re on social media, your image is in Clearview’s database.  When Hill’s image was run through the app, it returned several results, including photos she had never even seen before.[11]

There is no denying that law enforcement having access to Clearview’s database will help them identify more suspects and victims.  In one instance, the Indiana State police identified a suspect in a shooting within twenty minutes of experimenting with the app.[12] The shooter didn’t have a driver’s license or criminal record, so government database were useless.[13] The app was able to match an image of him to a video on the internet that had his name in the description.[14]

Along with the obvious privacy concerns, the app’s algorithm has never been tested by an independent party such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, so it is unclear how accurate it is.[15]  A researcher at Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology emphasized that “the larger the database, the larger the risk of misidentification because of the doppelgänger effect.”[16]  There is also the concern over whether law enforcement agencies using a database like this is legal.[17]  Clearview’s lawyer sent out a memo to prospective clients in August ensuring them that law enforcement agencies “do not violate the federal Constitution or relevant existing state biometric and privacy laws when using Clearview for its intended purpose.”[18]  A man in Illinois disagrees and has filed a class action lawsuit against the company for violating the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act.[19]  Maybe all this litigation involving Clearview will encourage for the federal government to make regulating law enforcement’s use of facial recognition a priority.

[1] Matt Romano, Lack of Federal Regulations as the Deployment of Facial Recognition Technology Increases Results in Drastic Measures, U. Rich. J. L. & Tech. Blog (Sept. 30, 2019),

[2] Kashmir Hill, The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It, N.Y. Times (Jan 18, 2020),

[3] See id.

[4] See id.

[5] See id.

[6] See id.

[7] See id.

[8] See id.

[9] Charlie Wood, Facebook Has Sent Cease-and-Desist Letter to Facial Recognition Start-Up Clearview AI for Scraping Billions of Photos, Business Insider (Feb. 6, 2020),

[10] See id.

[11] Kashmir Hill, The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It, N.Y. Times (Jan 18, 2020),

[12] See id.

[13] See id.

[14] See id.

[15] See id.

[16] See id.

[17] See id.

[18] See id.

[19] Tim Cushing, Lawsuit Says Clearview’s Facial Recognition App Violates Illinois Privacy Laws, Tech Dirt (Jan. 30, 2020),


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