Senator Wants Details on Clearview AI’s Contact Tracing Pitches

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Sen. Ed Markey wrote a letter to the controversial startup asking about its plans to use facial recognition technology to track patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A facial recognition startup that recently spurred concerns about privacy and anonymity in America for supplying biometric surveillance tools to law enforcement is now reportedly marketing its technology to the government as a COVID-19 tracking tool—and for that, it’s caught the attention of one Democratic lawmaker. 

Roused by reports that Clearview AI is now marketing its controversial facial recognition software to federal and state authorities to trace and track coronavirus patients amid the pandemic, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., penned a letter pressing the company’s CEO for more answers. The lawmaker’s letter is the latest he’s sent to probe the Clearview for more information about how its technology is being put to use. 

“Technology has an important role to play in mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic, but this health crisis cannot justify using unreliable surveillance tools that could undermine our privacy rights,” Markey wrote.

Clearview appeared across national headlines in January, after an initial New York Times investigation revealed that the company possesses a database of billions of personally identifying photos of people that hundreds of law enforcement officials used in the past year. The report detailed how the Clearview AI app allows users to take and upload a photo of any person’s face and then subsequently view public pictures of that same person—including the image links. Markey sent an initial note questioning the business’ sale of American’s sensitive biometric information and followed up with more inquiries into how Clearview processes data about children and also regarding its potential sales to foreign, authoritarian governments.   

“Given that your responses to my previous letter failed to address ongoing concerns about your product—particularly around accuracy and bias testing—any plans to deploy it widely to fight the coronavirus could further increase Clearview’s threat to the public’s privacy,” the letter states. 

NBC News on Monday reported that the company “is in talks with federal and state authorities” about how the tech could help trace COVID-19 as the people across the country endure another month of stay-at-home orders. In his latest letter, Markey revealed the company’s CEO claimed that an independent review panel evaluated Clearview AI with “the same basic methodology used by the American Civil Liberties Union.” However, the ACLU immediately repudiated Clearview’s claim and a BuzzFeed News investigation found that “[n]one of the panelists appear to have any expertise in facial recognition.” The lawmaker further noted that, in his eyes, the company failed to make fairly basic privacy considerations and provided no details about the platform’s error rates for false matches or people of color.

“The steps Clearview has taken to test the accuracy of your product fail to convincingly demonstrate that your technology is free of bias and technological flaws,” Markey wrote.

The senator asked the company’s CEO to identify any federal government or state entities it has “engaged on the use of Clearview’s technology for contact tracing or other responses to the ongoing pandemic,” and he also includes several other questions about the company’s marketing and accuracy assessments of its technology. Further, Markey asks Clearview to commit to no longer requiring people to submit a government-issued ID to delete their personal images from its app. 

“A government ID contains a considerable amount of sensitive information beyond just an individual’s face,” he wrote. “While I understand your interest in verifying deletion requests, it is unclear why Clearview needs that extra information to process such a request, especially considering you have repeatedly claimed Clearview does not collect personally identifiable information such as individuals’ names.”

The lawmaker asked the company to respond by May 14.