In 2002, Tom Cruise starred in a Steven Spielberg movie “Minority Report” that shocked the world. It was the first 21st Century look into a George Orwell world in which “Big Brother” was watching us — everywhere!
In one famous scene, Cruise is seen walking through an airport. Every few steps, huge video boards would begin playing messages in which all of the message contents included Cruise’s face and were directed specifically to him. Movie-goers immediately wondered, “Could something like that be possible in my lifetime?” The answer was and is, “Yes.” It’s available today.
A little-known computer programmer from Australia is grabbing serious attention. He is scaring those who have become electronics privacy police to death that a young Aussie has found a way to load billions of images into a database that has targeted Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and several other social sites. And you can bet the cease-and-desist notifications have flooded his offices down under.
His company is named “Clearview AI.” With his company in full operation, individual privacy will be a thing of the past. While many immediately think of the evil such software must make possible, there is much good that has been implemented as a direct result of his software. Six hundred law enforcement agencies around the world are using his facial recognition software as part of their already-in-place facial recognition programs. And its results are mind-boggling!
Just imagine detectives who report to a crime scene where a violent crime against someone has been committed. If there was a video camera aimed at the area of the crime and was fortunate enough to record just a momentary glimpse of his face, Clearview AI grabs it. The software on its own using that picture quickly researches online for all other images and affiliated data regarding that person’s circumstances. It automatically will upload all that information to local authorities. That information can most definitely be used to collar a criminal and quickly trace his criminal associates and criminal history.
“We have millions and millions of different websites all around the web that we crawl and add to our database,” Ton-That told ABC News. “There’s a lot of crimes and cases that are being solved. We believe that this technology can make the world a lot safer,” Ton-That added. He also said investigating agencies in Australia are also using his technology.
However, privacy advocates and experts in internet regulation fear that Ton-That may have breached several norms. In the first place, he has collected the images illegally, they argue. The lack of control in facial recognition tech will allow the misuse of powerful technology. If left unregulated and unchecked, the technology can kill personal privacy in one fell swoop, they add.
Police around the world use Clearview AI
The New York Times reported that federal and state law enforcement agencies in the U.S. are using Clearview AI to track criminals. At the same time, the officers New York Times spoke to said they did not know how the little-known company secured these images. Nor did they know who was behind the cutting edge technology.
Police have been able to solve crimes such as shoplifting, child abuse, identify theft, credit card fraud, and murder using this technology. However, on the flip side, millions of sensitive photos are being uploaded into the servers of a mysterious company, adding to the billions it has already scraped off of social pages.
Privacy advocates horrified at the breach
Privacy warriors are terrified about the way the untested company has managed to get access to billions of photos. Crime investigating agencies have used facial recognition technologies for at least 20 years, but their resource base was images provided by government sources such as a driver’s license. With Clearview AI getting into the act, personal photos uploaded anywhere on the social world are screened instantaneously.
People are concerned when their biometrics are harvested from social media channels. “Their sensitive personal information — biometric information is sensitive information — has been taken without their knowledge or their consent, and it’s been put to use for applications that they were not aware of, and they certainly haven’t agreed to.” That’s according to Monique Mann of the Australian Privacy Foundation.
Stalkers and crime syndicates could lay hands-on personal photos
New York Times found that Clearview AI had developed a method for doing real-time facial recognition using augmented reality glasses and supporting technologies. However, Ton-That has said real-time surveillance is not the aim and function of the company. He explained that his company was focused on search, not surveillance and that Clearview Ai is “an after-the-fact research tool.”
Though the technology is only being used by law enforcement agencies now, commercialization of its use can spell danger, privacy advocates say. Corporations, stalkers, and crime syndicates can access the technology and track people down using photographs obtained from public spaces.
Ton-That dismisses the Facebook warning
Meanwhile, Facebook said it would take action against Clearview AI over its practice of scraping images off its platform. “Scraping Facebook information or adding it to a directory are prohibited by our policies,” Facebook said. However, Ton-That dismissed the prospect and sought to oversimplify the context. “The general public does understand that things that are public do get into search engines and other places,” he said.
Who is Hoan Ton-That?
Ton-That moved to Silicon Valley from Australia in 2007 after dropping out of college. He met Richard Shwartz, who was Rudy Giuliani’s aid when he as New York mayor, in 2016, and the two ventured into the setting up of the facial recognition company.
His personally penned bio appears as follows on the Clearview AI official homepage:
Hoan is co-founder and CEO of Clearview, a startup company based in New York City creating the next generation of image search technology.
A self-taught engineer, Hoan is an Australian of Vietnamese descent. As a student he was ranked #1 solo competitor in Australia’s Informatics Olympiad. He was also ranked #2 guitarist under age 16 in Australia’s National Eisteddford Music Competition.
Hoan moved to San Francisco when he was 19 and created over twenty iPhone/Facebook apps with over ten million installs, many has ranking in the App Store’s Top 10. He then worked at AngelList, creating their Talent iPhone app before moving to New York City in 2016.
Ton-That’s bio on Everypedia bio says that he is the founder of Clearview AI, “a technology company that produces facial recognition software for law enforcement agencies.” He was born in Australia and moved to San Francisco at the age of 19. he started two companies – HappyAppy and Socialsoft. He also worked as an engineer at AngelList and Fitmob. Hoan is also a guitarist and musician who has recorded and released his own music, the bio adds. As per his profile on Medium, he is an “entrepreneur, computer hacker, guitarist, and part-time model.”
Where’s the Downside?
In this age of instant electronic everything, people are desperate to make certain identities, and personal information remains just that: personal. When our lives are made electronic and via the internet are stored on the servers of our credit card companies, our banks, big online companies like Amazon and even Apple, there are rich incentives for shady individuals and even countries to find ways to access everything they can about you and me. If you believe the radio and television ads we see and hear, every few seconds another American’s personal information is stolen via hacking into the servers.
When “Minority Report” hit theaters in 2002, it seemed far-fetched to believe artificial intelligence could EVER exist with the capability of doing what it now does unnoticed every day. Have you noticed any of these?
- You see a television ad and you via the internet or telephone reach out to order something from the ad. Maybe you are just asking questions to get more information. Then, surprisingly, you begin to see ads on sites like Facebook and Twitter for the actual companies featured in those ads and, even more likely, ads for their competitors. “How did they get all that?” It’s because of the technology like that developed by companies like Clearview AI.
- You drive-through your local Starbucks to get a latte on the way to work. At the window, you pay using your Citibank personal atm/credit card. Later that day, you’re on your office computer surfing the web to get a quick freshener on the day’s national news. Low and behold, Starbucks pop-up ads followed by Citibank pop-ups!
- Not long ago, I was on a return flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with a layover in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, I went to the lounge of the airline I use, logged into their “secure” server with me credentials for that airline, and spent an hour online doing some catchup office work. For weeks after I returned to the U.S., I received spam emails from a host of companies headquartered in Hong Kong. If that wasn’t odd enough, I started receiving pop-up ads for beard-coloring companies. I’m bald and have worn a beard for 30 years. My beard is brown speckled in gray. Most of the beard-coloring ads I received referenced my “keeping the grey out of brown hair and brown beards using their products! How is that possible? I sat in that airport lounge on that airline’s wifi on my laptop with a camera on my face the entire time. I shouldn’t have even been surprised at the results!
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has long been a proponent of cracking down on U.S. intelligence agencies and even private companies that walk a thin line between the information and data of American citizens being collected by government agencies and private companies. He’s been accused of being a conspiracy theorist and a paranoid lawmaker from the South. But Sen. Paul hit on something: Americans’ privacy is no longer Americans’ privacy. We sold that privacy at a yard sale. How so?
We sold our privacy rights very quietly to the tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, all the cell telephone and internet providers long ago. When those transactions were finalized, each of us painted a massive bullseye on or foreheads. Through hacking, illegal sharing, and even mass sales, our privacy of everything in our lives were either made available to the general public or to people who desperately wanted access to it to make lots of money using it. And sometimes they use that information to extort money and favor from the very ones who have been violated.
I’ll finish without giving you a warm and fuzzy “all you need to do is take care of your private information and enroll in Company “X’s” identity protection plan, and you’ll be fine.” Not only do I not believe that, but internet security technology was created by humans and can be hacked by humans through software “bridges” they create that allows them access. It’s probable that you WILL be hacked — if you haven’t already.
What can we do? Be vigilant, cautious and pro-active. Change passwords often and use ones that come from the air — meaning passwords which hackers cannot quickly figure out like using birthdays, kids’ names, etc. Try not to use interactive electronics like Amazon Electra unless you specifically need to do so for some specific reason. And when you complete that task, power off. Put a piece of tape over the cameras on your computers and other electronics. When you need to use those cameras, do so, and then put the tape back on them. The same things hold true on credit and atm card usage online and making in-person purchases.
I hate the need that leads me for this one final thought: in every type of electronic communication you ever do, use as your default expectation: “Someone is going to try to get my personal information from what I’m about to do. I need to make it as difficult for them as I can.”
Know this: Big Brother IS watching you — ALWAYS. And Big Brother is hungry. He wants access to all your stuff!