Clearview AI

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Clearview AI is a surveillance technology company that provides facial recognition software, which is used by private companies, law enforcement agencies, universities and individuals. Clearview AI runs a powerful neural network which processes photographs of faces and compares their precise measurement and symmetry to a massive database of pictures, scraped from various social media sites, to suggest possible matches. Founded by Hoan Ton-That and Richard Schwartz [1], the company maintained a low profile until late 2019, when its usage by law enforcement was reported on. Multiple public records requests have uncovered thousands of emails to law enforcement agencies across the United States.

In January 2020, Twitter sent a cease and desist letter [2] and requested the deletion of all scraped data. This was followed by similar actions by YouTube (via Google) and Facebook in February. Clearview sells access to its database to law enforcement agencies for use in cases such as child sexual abuse and has over 3,000 active users including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security [3]. A data breach [4] in early 2020 revealed that numerous commercial organizations were on Clearview's customer list as well.


Clearview operated in near secrecy until the release of The New York Times exposé titled "The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It" in January 2020 [5]. Over 40 tech and civil rights organizations including Color of Change, Council on American–Islamic Relations, Demand Progress, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Fight for the Future, Freedom of the Press Foundation, Media Alliance, National Center for Transgender Equality, National Hispanic Media Coalition, National LGBTQ Task Force, Project On Government Oversight, Restore the Fourth, and the Woodhull Freedom Foundation sent a letter to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) and four congressional committees, expressing their concerns with facial recognition and Clearview, asking the PCLOB to ban the use of facial recognition [6].

It sparked a global debate on the regulation of facial recognition technology by governments and law enforcement. Numerous international media outlets called for a ban of the Clearview's software upon learning that 3 billion images had been collected from social media websites. Law enforcement officers have stated that Clearview's facial recognition is far superior in identifying perpetrators from any angle than previously used technology. Clearview submits accuracy reports to the agencies that use their service but those accuracy studies are not made open to independent review.

The New York Times identified Hoan Ton-That and Richard Schwartz as the company's founders with investors including Peter Thiel and Naval Ravikant. Ton-That worked as a software developer at AngelList prior to founding Clearview AI. Ton-That first gained public notice in 2009, when he created ViddyHo, a website that spammed users' contacts and was described as phishing or a computer worm. Ton-That denied creating a phishing site and claimed a software bug was the cause. He then created, a similar phishing site. He also created an app called "Trump Hair", which placed Donald Trump's hair on photos. Richard Schwartz was a graduate of Columbia University and New York University, holding degrees in History and Public Policy. He began his career working for Henry Stern, when Stern was a member of the New York City Council. Schwartz continued working with Stern during Stern's tenure as New York City Parks Commissioner under New York City Mayor Ed Koch. Schwartz heavily contributed to the 1980s New York City Parks restoration and continued public service under Mayor David Dinkins. He was appointed senior policy advisor to New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the 1990s. Schwartz authored the Work Experience Program, a welfare reform program. Schwartz founded Opportunity America, a job matching service for welfare recipients, one day after leaving public service in 1997. He served as Editorial Editor at the New York Daily News in the 2000s. Ton-That and Schwartz met at the Manhattan Institute.

Marketing efforts and pushback

Most of the customers that Clearview has obtained has been through the offers of free trials for use of their technology. According to Clearview AI contracts reviewed by Project PM researchers, a one user slot averages $2000, with most law enforcement departments opting for 10 or more user slots.

Contract with Texas Dept of Public Safety [7]

Invoice with Miami Police Dept [8]

Budget Request from Gainesville, FL PD [9]

In March 2020, NBC News stated that Clearview was pitching their technology to states for use in contact tracing to assist with the COVID-19 pandemic. [10]

Cybersecurity expert Josephine Wolff called out Clearview in an op-ed in The New York Times [11]: "The United States government's engagement with the facial recognition company Clearview AI on coronavirus tracking is especially worrisome in this regard", and that "The company's product is still every bit as dangerous, invasive and unnecessary as it was before the spread of the coronavirus."

Senator Edward J. Markey wrote Clearview, stating "Widespread use of your technology could facilitate dangerous behavior and could effectively destroy individuals' ability to go about their daily lives anonymously." Markey asked Clearview to detail aspects of its business to understand these privacy, bias, and security concerns. Clearview responded through an attorney, declining to reveal information. In response to this, Markey wrote a second letter, calling their response unacceptable and containing dubious claims, highlighting the concern of Clearview "selling its technology to authoritarian regimes" and possible violations of COPPA. Senator Markey wrote his third letter to the company with concerns, stating "this health crisis cannot justify using unreliable surveillance tools that could undermine our privacy rights." Markey asked a series of questions about what government entities Clearview has been talking with, in addition to unanswered privacy concerns. [12]

In June, 2021 the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report issuing recommendations to the 26 government agencies using facial recognition technology, inclusive to Clearview AI. [13]


"Facial recognition technology is a powerful tool used by the federal law enforcement community. Federal agencies that employ law enforcement officers rely on systems with facial recognition technology, and the potentially millions or billions of photos stored in these systems, to help generate investigative leads and solve crimes.

However, 13 federal agencies cannot assess the risks of using non-federal systems because they are unaware of what systems are used by employees. By implementing a mechanism to track what non-federal systems are used by employees, agencies will have better visibility into the technologies they rely upon to conduct criminal investigations. In addition, by assessing the risks of using these systems, including privacy and accuracy-related risks, agencies will be better positioned to mitigate any risks to themselves and the public."


Clearview states their technology is not for public consumption and meant for law enforcement usage, but their marketing material encouraged users to "run wild" with their use [14], suggesting searching for family and friends as well as celebrities. Clearview also indicated they were targeting private security firms and marketed to casinos through Clearview's Jessica Medeiros Garrison. Clearview planned expansion to many countries, including Brazil, Colombia, and Nigeria, a cluster that Buzzfeed titles "authoritarian regimes" including United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Singapore, and General Data Protection Regulation-following EU countries including Italy, Greece, and Netherlands.

While Clearview's app is only supposed to be privately accessible to customers, Gizmodo found the Android application package in an unsecured Amazon S3 bucket. In addition to application tracking (Google Analytics, Crashlytics), it contains references to Google Play Services (Firebase or AppMeasurement), requests precise phone location data, and appeared to have features for voice search, sharing a free demo account to other users, augmented reality integration with Vuzix, and sending gallery photos or taking photos from the app itself. There were also references to scanning barcodes on a drivers license and to RealWear.

Clearview also operates a secondary business, Insight Camera, which provides AI-enabled security cameras [15]. It is targeted at "retail, banking and residential buildings". Two customers have used the technology, United Federation of Teachers and Rudin Management.

Notable associates

Multiple reports identified Clearview's association with far-right personas dating back to 2016, when the company claimed to sever ties with two employees. Hon That has been linked to Chuck Johnson, Mike Cernovich, Douglass Mackey, and Paul Nehlen.

A Huffington Post story published in April 2020 [16] identified a Slack channel from 2016 that was created by Charles C. Johnson and Pax Dickinson called WeSearchr taken from a crowd-funding site of the same name. Channel members included Ton-That, Schwartz, Marko Jukic, Tyler Bass and Douglass Mackey who all worked for Smartcheckr, Clearview's original name before rebranding. Mackey was associated with alt-right white supremacist congressional candidate Paul Nehlen. Clearview claimed to have had no knowledge of Mackey's persona, though Mackey was also part of the WeSearchr Slack under his fake name. After Mackey's persona was revealed, Schwartz used a reputation management company to obscure his involvement with Smartcheckr.

The New York Times described early use of Clearview's app as "a secret plaything of the rich", describing it as a perk given to potential investors in their Series A fundraising round [17]. Billionaire John Catsimatidis, a friend of Richard Schwartz, used it to identify someone his daughter dated to "make sure he wasn't a charlatan" and piloted it at one of his Gristedes grocery market in New York City to identify shoplifters. Investor Hal Lambert of Point Bridge Capital described having the app and showing it to friends. Investor David Scalzo, founder of Kirenaga Partners, said that his "school-aged daughters enjoyed playing with the app". Doug Leone, a potential investor at Sequoia Capital, was given access, which was revoked after Sequoia declined to invest. Actor and investor Ashton Kutcher described an app in September 2019 that was likely Clearview.

After testing Clearview for accuracy, Nicholas Cassimatis was allowed to continue using the app and described demoing it to people "like a parlor trick".Noted far-right "troll king" Charles C. Johnson had an account on Clearview as well as Tor Ekeland [needs own page] and Palmer Luckey [needs own page].

Tor Ekeland emerged to field media requests on behalf of Clearview AI.[18] Ekeland was also (Weev) Auernheimer’s lawyer and had made his name by getting the neo-Nazi out of federal prison.

Tor contends that Clearview AI is entitled to use people's faces under First Amendment.

“I mean, first of all, the common law has never recognized a right to privacy for your face,” Ekeland said. “It's kind of a bizarre argument to make because [your face is the] most public thing out there.”[19]

Disclosure: Tor Ekeland visited Project PM's Barrett Brown in prison (2014).[20]

Clearview hired Jessica Medeiros Garrison, a Republican operative who managed Luther Strange's Alabama Attorney General campaign, then became Chief Counsel and Deputy Attorney General the following year. She successfully sued blogger Roger Shuler for defamation related to her and Luther Strange. In a court case involving campaign finance violations by Democratic Alabama state senator Lowell Barron, Barron's attorneys accused Strange of paying $350,000 to Garrison. Garrison was later the director of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) during a period where it was involved in sending dark money to Luther Strange, which was returned after the transaction was uncovered, having violated Alabama campaign finance law. Garrison also worked for Balch & Bingham until May 2017. Balch & Bingham is a law firm closely associated with Jeff Sessions's political career and also one of his largest donors.

Additionally, Tor Ekeland has served on the board of Your Anonymous News (YAN). [21]

The AI Now Institute linked Clearview with the Banjo surveillance platform [22]

Credit to Ron Brynaert for edits.

Ongoing Research Efforts

In early April 2021, a FOIL request made through the NYPD uncovered several hundred emails discussing Clearviews ongoing collaboration with law enforcement. [23]

942 pages of public record requests regarding Clearview AI [24]

External Links