Senator questions Clearview AI over coronavirus tracking plans

Sen. Edward Markey says COVID-19 contact tracing can't be "used as cover by companies like Clearview to build shadowy surveillance networks."

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Sen. Edward Markey raises questions about the facial recognition company's "accuracy and bias."

James Martin/CNET

Clearview AI is facing questions about apparent talks with federal and state officials to use its facial recognition technology to track people infected with coronavirus. Sen. Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, on Thursday sent a letter to Clearview AI asking the company to name agencies it's in talks with and to disclose any possible agreements to develop contact tracing tools. 

In the letter, Markey also raised concerns around "accuracy and bias" in Clearview's facial recognition technology and said "any plans to deploy it widely to fight the coronavirus could further increase Clearview's threat to the public's privacy." The letter was earlier reported by BuzzFeed News

In a tweet Thursday, the senator added that the need for COVID-19 contact tracing can't be "used as cover by companies like Clearview to build shadowy surveillance networks."

In an interview with NBC News on Monday, Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That said federal authorities and three states have spoken with him about using the company's technology as part of efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

In an emailed statement Friday, Ton-That confirmed Clearview had received a letter from Markey and said the company would be "responding to him directly."

Clearview 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 in January. Markey has previously called Clearview a "chilling" privacy risk. In addition, Google, YouTube, Microsoft and Twitter have sent cease-and-desist letters to Clearview. The company also faces multiple lawsuits.

Watch this: Contact tracing explained: How apps can slow the coronavirus