Imagine being able to find a stranger’s name, phone number, address, and occupation using just a photograph of the individual. This can be accomplished using powerful facial recognition software developed by Clearview AI, an American technology company. Founded by Australian software developer Hoan Ton-That and former aide to Rudy Giulani, Richard Schwartz, the company is under fire for scraping the Internet to create a database of billions of images.

The company has gathered the images from the “open web” which includes websites such as YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. While the company website states that it “does not and cannot search any private or protected info, including in your private social media accounts,” if the account was public at any moment, the images are most likely now in the database.

The app is not available to the public as of yet; however, it is being used by more than six hundred law enforcement agencies in the United States and Canada. According to Business Insider, “contracts to use the service cost as much as $50,000 for a two-year deal.”

The RCMP has admitted to using the controversial technology and stated that it had used Clearview AI in fifteen child exploitation investigations. The RCMP statement also mentioned that Clearview AI had helped the RCMP successfully identify and rescue two children and that a few other units in the RCMP were also using the technology. Following the statement’s release, the federal Office of the Privacy Commissioner opened an investigation into whether the RCMP’s use violates federal privacy law.

Other Canadian law enforcement agencies reported to have been using the software include the Calgary Police Service, the Halifax Regional Police—who say that they are no longer using it, and the Toronto Police Service. The Hamilton Police Service said that they had tested Clearview AI and the Edmonton Police Service stated that they were considering using the facial recognition software.

In January 2020, Clearview AI was served a cease and desist letter by Twitter who also demanded that all collected data be deleted. YouTube, Google, and Facebook also sent cease and desist letters and in Illinois, a lawsuit seeking class-action status was filed against the company. The lawsuit claiming that Clearview AI’s “use of artificial intelligence algorithms to scan the facial geometry of each individual depicted in the images [had] violate[d] multiple privacy laws.”

As of now, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders has directed Toronto police officers to stop using the technology. Peel Regional Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah has also directed that any use be halted “until a full assessment is undertaken.”

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