Senator fears Clearview AI facial recognition could be used on protesters

Sen. Edward Markey asks if the company considers a history of discriminatory policing before selling the tech to certain law enforcement agencies.

Corinne Reichert Senior Editor
Corinne Reichert (she/her) grew up in Sydney, Australia and moved to California in 2019. She holds degrees in law and communications, and currently writes news, analysis and features for CNET across the topics of electric vehicles, broadband networks, mobile devices, big tech, artificial intelligence, home technology and entertainment. In her spare time, she watches soccer games and F1 races, and goes to Disneyland as often as possible.
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Thousands took part in Black Lives Matter protests in San Francisco on June 3. 

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Sen. Edward Markey has raised concerns that police and law enforcement agencies have access to controversial facial recognition app Clearview AI in cities where people are protesting the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died two weeks ago while in the custody of Minneapolis police.

Markey, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts and a member of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, said Tuesday the technology could be used to identify and arrest protestors

"As demonstrators across the country exercise their First Amendment rights by protesting racial injustice, it is important that law enforcement does not use technological tools to stifle free speech or endanger the public," Markey said in a letter to Clearview AI CEO and co-founder Hoan Ton-That.

The threat of surveillance could also deter people from "speaking out against injustice for fear of being permanently included in law enforcement databases," he said.

Markey, who has previously hammered Clearview AI over its sales to foreign governments, use by domestic law enforcement and use in the COVID-19 pandemic, is now asking the company for a list of law enforcement agencies that have signed new contracts since May 25, 2020.

It's also being asked if search traffic on its database has increased during the past two weeks; whether it considers a law enforcement agency's "history of unlawful or discriminatory policing practices" before selling the technology to them; what process it takes to give away free trials; and whether it will prohibit its technology from being used to identify peaceful protestors.

Ton-That said he will respond to the letter from Markey. "Clearview AI's technology is intended only for after-the-crime investigations, and not as a surveillance tool relating to protests or under any other circumstances," he said in an emailed statement.

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 including for allegedly taking these photos without people's consent.

Black Lives Matter protests are continuing across the US and globally as people demonstrate against the recent deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and of systemic racism. 

Black Lives Matter. Visit blacklivesmatters.carrd.co to learn how to donate, sign petitions and protest safely.

Watch this: Black Lives Matter: How you can take action today