Clearview: More Tradecraft Exposed

March 26, 2020

After years of dancing around the difference between brain dead products like enterprise search, content management, and predictive analytics, anyone can gain insight into the specialized software provided by generally low profile companies. Verint is publicly traded. Do you know what Verint does? Sure, look it up on Bing or Google.

I read with some discomfort “I Got My File From Clearview AI, and It Freaked Me Out.”

Here are some factoids from the write up. Are these true? DarkCyber assumes that everything the team sees on the Internet meets the highest standards of integrity, objectivity, and truthiness. DarkCyber’s comments are in italic:

  1. “Someone really has been monitoring nearly everything you post to the public internet. And they genuinely are doing “something” with it. The someone is Clearview AI. And the something is this: building a detailed profile about you from the photos you post online, making it searchable using only your face, and then selling it to government agencies and police departments who use it to help track you, identify your face in a crowd, and investigate you — even if you’ve been accused of no crime.”
  2. “Clearview AI was founded in 2017. It’s the brainchild of Australian entrepreneur Hoan Ton-That and former political aide Richard Schwartz. For several years, Clearview essentially operated in the shadows.”
  3. “The Times, not usually an institution prone to hyperbole, wrote that Clearview could “end privacy as we know it.” [This statement is a reference to a New York Times intelware article. The New York Times continues to hunt for real news that advances an agenda of “this stuff is terrible, horrible, unconstitutional, pro anything the NYT believes in, etc.”]
  4. “the company [Clearview] scrapes public images from the internet. These can come from news articles, public Facebook posts, social media profiles, or multiple other sources. Clearview has apparently slurped up more than 3 billion of these images.” [The images are those which are available on the Internet and possibly from other sources; for example, commercial content vendors.]
  5. “The images are then clustered together which allows the company to form a detailed, face-linked profile of nearly anyone who has published a picture of themselves online (or has had their face featured in a news story, a company website, a mug shot, or the like).” [This is called enrichment, context, or machine learning indexing and — heaven help DarkCyber — social graphs or semantic relationships. Jargon varies according to fashion trends.]
  6. “Clearview packages this database into an easy-to-query service (originally called Smartcheckr) and sells it to government agencies, police departments, and a handful of private companies….As of early 2020, the company had more than 2,200 customers using its service.” [DarkCyber wants to point out that law enforcement entities are strapped for cash, and many deals are little more than proofs-of-concept. Some departments cycle through policeware and intelware in order to know what the systems do versus what the marketing people say the systems do. Big difference? Yep, yep.]
  7. “Clearview’s clients can upload a photo of an unknown person to the system. This can be from a surveillance camera, an anonymous video posted online, or any other source.”
  8. “In a matter of seconds, Clearview locates the person in its database using only their face. It then provides their complete profile back to the client.”

Now let’s look at what the write up reported that seemed to DarkCyber to be edging closer to “real news.”

This is the report the author obtained:

image

The article reports that the individual who obtained this information from Clearview was surprised. DarkCyber noted this series of statements:

The depth and variety of data that Clearview has gathered on me is staggering. My profile contains, for example, a story published about me in my alma mater’s alumni magazine from 2012, and a follow-up article published a year later. It also includes a profile page from a Python coders’ meet up group that I had forgotten I belonged to, as well as a wide variety of posts from a personal blog my wife and I started just after getting married. The profile contains the URL of my Facebook page, as well as the names of several people with connections to me, including my faculty advisor and a family member (I have redacted their information and images in red prior to publishing my profile here).

The write up includes commentary on the service, its threats to individual privacy, and similar sentiments.

DarkCyber’s observations include:

  • Perhaps universities could include information about applications of math, statistics, and machine learning in their business and other courses? At a lecture DarkCyber gave at the University of Louisville in January 2019, cluelessness among students and faculty was the principal takeaway for the DarkCyber team.
  • Clearview’s technology is not unique, nor is it competitive with the integrated systems available from other specialized software vendors, based on information available to DarkCyber.
  • The summary of what Clearview does captures information that would have been considered classified and may still be considerate classified in some countries.
  • Clearview does not appear to have video capability like other vendors with richer, more sophisticated technology.

Why did DarkCyber experience discomfort? Some information is not — at this time or in the present environment — suitable for wide dissemination. A good actor with technical expertise can become a bad actor because the systems and methods are presented in sufficient detail to enable certain activities. Knowledge is power, but knowledge in the hands of certain individuals can yield unexpected consequences. DarkCyber is old fashioned and plans to stay that way.

Stephen E Arnold, March 26, 2020

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