September 30, 2022

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Why Facial Recognition Technology Has an Uncertain Future with Small Business

If you’re skeptical about whether your company will ever use facial recognition technology as a business tool, you’re not alone. Perhaps the most prominent facial recognition technology provider in the world, Clearview AI, has attracted significant criticism and raised ethical concerns even as it has been used by law enforcement.  

In a live interview with the Washington Post last week, New York-based Clearview AI’s co-founder and CEO Hoan Ton-That addressed questions about the ethical and legal implications of his software, which became first known to many Americans when a billionaire used it to identify his daughter’s dinner date, and for the involvement of far-right individuals in the creation of the company. Pressed on questions about the legal and ethical choices his firm has made while creating a searchable database of 20 billion facial images, Ton-That repeatedly brought up examples where the use cases of Clearview AI’s technology would look better in the public eye, mentioning its use in helping catch criminals in child pornography and child abuse cases. Ton-That also pointed to the use of Clearview AI’s technology by the Ukrainian government to identify dead Russian soldiers, for notifying their families of their passing.

While Clearview AI has some 20 billion facial images to feed its current product, the dataset is being used only by governments so far. “There’s no non-governmental use of this dataset at this time,” Ton-That said, adding that “we’ve developed as prototypes different versions of our technology for retail and banking.”

Ton-That also claimed to welcome regulation in the facial recognition space, and stated that his company will not do business with certain governments he described as “authoritarian”–mentioning specifically China, North Korea and Iran–and that authoritarian governments have the resources and ability to create technology functionally equivalent to that created by his company. Clearview AI currently employs 50 people and has reportedly raised a total of $38 million in funding since its founding in 2017. Ton-That claimed that his company is not especially associated with far-right individuals, and denied claims that far-right activist Charles “Chuck” Johnson is associated with the company.

Ethical concerns about many forms of AI and specifically facial recognition have been a key theme even before the technology was known to be possible, in works of science fiction and more. The list of countries lining up to regulate and occasionally fine Clearview AI continues to grow and includes Italy, France, and Canada. The U.S. has generally not chosen to regulate on issues of privacy and algorithmic impacts. Facebook notably abandoned facial recognition technology last year, but many other technology firms have not followed suit.