Clearview AI, used by police to find criminals, now in public defenders’ hands – The Denver Post


It was the scariest night of Andrew Grantt Conlyn’s life. He sat in the passenger seat of a two-door 1997 Ford Mustang, clutching his seat belt, as his friend drove approximately 100 mph down a palm-tree-lined avenue in Fort Myers, Florida. His friend, inebriated and distraught, occasionally swerved onto the wrong side of the road to pass cars that were complying with the 35 mph speed limit.

“Someone is going to die tonight,” Conlyn thought.

And then his friend hit a curb and lost control of the car. The Mustang began spinning wildly, hitting a light pole and three palm trees before coming to a stop, the passenger’s side against a tree.

At some point, Conlyn blacked out. When he came to, his friend was gone, the car was on fire and his seat belt buckle was jammed. Luckily, a good Samaritan intervened, prying open the driver’s side door and pulling Conlyn out of the burning vehicle.

Conlyn didn’t learn his savior’s name that Wednesday night in March 2017, nor did the police, who came to the scene and found the body of his friend, Colton Hassut, in the bushes near the crash; he had been ejected from the car and had died. In the years that followed, the inability to track down that good Samaritan derailed Conlyn’s life. If Clearview AI, which is based in New York City, hadn’t granted his lawyer special access to a facial recognition database of 20 billion faces, Conlyn might have spent up to 15 years in prison because the police believed he had been the one driving the car.

For the past few years, Clearview AI’s tool has been largely restricted to law enforcement, but the company now plans to offer access to public defenders. Hoan Ton-That, the company’s CEO, said this would help “balance the scales of justice,” but critics of the company are skeptical given the legal and ethical concerns that swirl around Clearview AI’s groundbreaking technology. The company scraped billions of faces from social media sites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram, and other parts of the web in order to build an app that seeks to unearth every public photo of a person that exists online.

“I think it’s a rare situation in which most defense attorneys would want to use it,” said Jerome Greco, who oversees a forensics technology lab at the Legal Aid Society, in New York City. “This is mostly being done as a PR stunt to try to push back against the negative publicity that Clearview has about its tool and how it’s being used by law enforcement.”

Civil-liberty advocates believe Clearview’s expansive database of photos violates privacy, because the images, though public on the web, were collected without people’s consent.

The tool can unearth photos that people did not post themselves and may not even realize are online. Critics say it puts millions of law-abiding people in a perpetual lineup for law enforcement, which is particularly concerning given broader concerns about the accuracy of automated facial recognition.

Clearview AI has been the target of multiple lawsuits, and its database has been declared illegal in Canada, Australia, Britain, France, Italy and Greece. It faces multiple multimillion-dollar fines in Europe.

The controversy around Clearview AI aside, some public defenders see potential benefits in having access to the company’s technology — and, in the case of Conlyn, it played an indispensable role.

“There is nothing worse than being held responsible for a crime you did not commit,” said Ton-That. “I was honored to assist.”


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