Scraped – ouch. Our faces have been scraped off the internet more often than we likely realize, even those of us who are camera shy and loathe selfie culture. Why? Because there’s value in tracking our movements and whereabouts, silly. Facial recognition – pre-regulation, anyway – is a lucrative industry and yet controversial as all get out, with Google and Facebook merely loitering poolside, occasionally dipping a big data toe in the water. Tech abhors a vacuum which is where Clearview AI comes in, as reported by the New York Times’ Kashmir Hill in her debut book, Your Face Belongs to Us. Hill covers centuries of facial interpretation and decades of technological advances but concentrates on the shenanigans of this shadowy start-up since its 2017 launch. The reader is indebted to the intrepid journalist for helping reveal the company’s questionable motivations, crafty rebranding, and attempts to distract from its far-right origins, resulting in a story equal parts entertaining, enlightening, and terrifying.
If you think public Venmo profiles are stupid (“Fred paid Barney for nom nom nom!”), Hill helps us realize that they can also be dangerous. One may put their full name and profile pic on the payments app because it’s, um, adorable but it’s also revealing and easy to expose. Initially called Smartcheckr with the involvement of highly problematic alt-right dirtbag Charles Johnson (and thus an eventual rebrand), Clearview AI tapped such sites on the path to collecting billions of photos. “It was like a slot machine,” Hill writes, but one that always pays off as “the faces spilled out with each pull of the lever.” She notes that this was no scientific breakthrough – indeed, the early days of facial recognition date back to the 60s and big tech was already capable of such maneuvers – rather “ethical arbitrage.” Engineers the world over, at Google and Clearview and everywhere in between, seek so-called technical sweetness, the joy felt when pushing forward innovations like automated facial recognition. The difference is, executives at massive publicly traded entities know to keep the horse in the barn while those at unknown start-ups obsess over being the next Zuck, moving fast, breaking things.
For all her hustle, including while pregnant, Hill might have stumbled upon a single redeemable character involved with Clearview AI. She did not. The utter oddball rotting at its core is co-founder & CEO Hoan Ton-That, an Australian immigrant who arrived in Silicon Valley at 19, seeking gold in them thar hills. Wealthy as he may have since become, richer still is the irony of his journey, aligning with white nationalists, the MAGA movement, and law enforcement all too eager to misuse such powerful technology while over-policing communities of color. (The story of the mistaken identity and treatment of a Detroit man and his family is nothing short of infuriating.) Hill skillfully gets him to spill the beans and blubber like a toddler and it wins him zero sympathy from the reader. “Ton-That and his colleagues had been willing to cross a line that other technology companies feared, for good reason,” writes the author. Thanks in part to her reporting, the ACLU has formally complained, “Clearview epitomizes the insidious encroachment on an individual’s liberty” and that its creators “acted out of pure greed.” True that, Ton-That. Long live the journalists who crawl through sewers, Andy Dufresne-style, in their tireless pursuit of filth.
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