In a recent interview, Hoan Ton-That, the CEO of controversial facial recognition firm Clearview AI, stated that he has a First Amendment right to scrape billions of online photos to add to his firm’s giant database.
Gizmodo reports that Hoan Ton-That, the founder and CEO of facial recognition company Clearview AI, states that he has a First Amendment right to scrape through billions of photos online to add to his company’s database of three billion pictures.
Clearview AI, a facial recognition tech startup, has developed a system that allows users to upload a photo of a person to the app and see public photos of that person, along with links to where those photos appeared. The system scrapes information from Facebook, YouTube, Venmo and millions of other websites.
Clearview AI’s facial surveillance systems have been licensed to over 600 law enforcement agencies from the FBI to the Department of Homeland Security and regular local police departments. The system operates with almost no oversight, is reportedly exempt from biometric data laws, and has been marketed widely to law enforcement agencies.
In an interview with CBS This Morning, Ton-That said that “We’ve received a letter, and our legal counsel has reached out to them and are handling it accordingly. But there is also a First Amendment right to public information. So the way we have built our system is to only take publicly available information and index it that way.” Ton-That added: “So that’s all I can say on the matter.”
EXCLUSIVE: The founder of a facial recognition company described as both “groundbreaking” and “a nightmare” is speaking out.
— CBS This Morning (@CBSThisMorning) February 4, 2020
Gizmodo notes that beyond the question of a first amendment right to scraping public data, the firm may be exposing itself to civil liability. Gizmodo writes:
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a case between LinkedIn and data analytics firm hiQ Labs last year that scraping public data isn’t a violation of the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), the infamously vaguely written federal law that criminalizes hacking. Staff attorney Jamie Lee Williams of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group known for its work on privacy cases, wrote in a recent blog post that it would be a mistake to try to ban automated public data scraping via the CFAA, as it would criminalize the many mundane uses of the technique and the act could be abused by corporations looking to stamp out competition.
Stanford Internet Observatory director and former Facebook Chief Information Security Officer Alex Stamos told the New York Times that the 9th Circuit ruling had: “eviscerated the legal argument that Facebook used to use on scammers and spammers.”
In January of this year, Stamos tweeted that Clearview may have violated the copyrights of millions of people:
I assume Clearview has violated the copyrights of millions of people? Those people licensed Facebook to show their photos but that license doesn't flow through to somebody who violated ToS, I'm sure. Has there ever been a class-action on mass photo copyright?
— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) January 18, 2020