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Clearview AI probed over facial recognition sales to foreign governments

Sen. Edward Markey is also concerned that Clearview AI may have violated online child privacy laws.

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Sen. Markey wants to know if Clearview AI is selling its product to foreign authoritarian regimes.

James Martin/CNET

Sen. Edward J. Markey wants answers from controversial facial recognition app Clearview AI, noting that the app is being marketed to foreign countries with authoritarian regimes and could also be collecting and processing images of children taken from social media platforms.

"Reporting suggests that Clearview has already provided its software to organizations in countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, countries governed by authoritarian regimes with poor track records on human rights," Markey wrote in a letter to Hoan Ton-That, Clearview AI CEO and founder. "The use of sophisticated facial recognition technology is concerning even in a democracy with strong civil liberties, but its export to certain foreign countries could enable mass surveillance and repression of minorities." 

His letter adds that Clearview's practice of scraping photos of children on Facebook would also violate US federal laws protecting children's privacy.

Markey, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts and a member of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, has asked Clearview whether it plans to sell its tech outside of the US; how the company can guarantee its tech won't be used to repress or abuse human rights; whether Clearview has taken steps to ensure it complies with children's online privacy laws; and whether any facial images were accessed during the recent Clearview AI database hack.

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Clearview AI identifies people by comparing photos to a database of images scraped from social media and other sites. It came under fire after a New York Times investigation into the software company, and in late January, Markey called Clearview AI a "chilling" privacy risk. Since then, Google, YouTube, Microsoft and Twitter have sent cease-and-desist letters to Clearview AI, and the company is also facing multiple lawsuits.

Markey's letter probing the company follows a report Thursday by BuzzFeed News that Clearview's customers include not only law enforcement agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the FBI, the Department of Justice, and Customs and Border Protection, but also retailers like Macy's, Verizon, T-Mobile, Las Vegas Sands, Walmart and Kohl's.

In addition, that report said Clearview AI has expanded to law enforcement agencies in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, Finland, France, Ireland, India, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

Later Tuesday, the US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology also published a letter written to the Clearview AI CEO expressing deep concern about the reported hack on the company's database.

"Clearview AI's work appears subject to very little government oversight, despite the serious privacy questions raised," reads the letter, signed by Eddie Bernice Johnson and Frank D. Lucas. "Clearview AI needs to provide answers to some basic questions about how the company collects, uses and protects US citizens' data."

The committee wants answers to its questions by March 17, including "how data breaches at your company could affect ongoing law enforcement operations."

Clearview didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Originally published March 3, 12:40 p.m. PT.
Update, 3:09 p.m.: Adds details about letter from House committee.