Every day, social media users upload millions of images to their accounts; each day 350 million photos are uploaded to Facebook alone. Many social media websites make users’ information and images available to anyone with a web browser. The wealth of public information available on social media is immensely valuable, and the practice of webscraping—third parties using bots to scrape public information from websites to monetize the information—is increasingly common.
The photographs on social media sites raise thorny issues because they feature individuals’ biometric data—a type of data that is essentially immutable and highly personal. Because of the heighted privacy concerns, collecting, analyzing and selling biometric data was long considered taboo by tech companies — at least until Clearview AI launched its facial recognition software.
Clearview AI’s Facial Recognition Database
In 2016, a developer named Hoan Ton-That began creating a facial recognition algorithm. In 2017, after refining the algorithm, Ton-That, along with his business partner Richard Schwartz (former advisor to Rudy Giuliani) founded Clearview AI and began marketing its facial recognition software to law enforcement agencies. Clearview AI reportedly populates its photo database with publicly available images scraped from social media sites, including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Venmo, and many others. The New York Times reported that the database has amassed more than three billion images.