Democrats urge federal agencies to ditch Clearview AI's facial recognition tech

Multiple departments are said to be using the controversial tech for 'domestic law enforcement' reasons.

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Four Democratic senators and House representatives have called on several government departments to stop using Clearview AI’s facial recognition system. The Government Accountability Office said in August that the Departments of Justice, Defense, Homeland Security and the Interior were all using the contentious technology for “domestic law enforcement." Sens. Ed Markey and Jeff Merkley and Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Ayanna Pressley urged the agencies to refrain from using Clearview's products and other facial recognition tools.

“Clearview AI’s technology could eliminate public anonymity in the United States,” the lawmakers wrote to the agencies in their letters, which were obtained by The Verge. They said that, combined with the facial recognition system, the database of billions of photos Clearview scraped from social media platforms "is capable of fundamentally dismantling Americans’ expectation that they can move, assemble or simply appear in public without being identified."

Those lawmakers have been trying to "prohibit biometric surveillance by the federal government without explicit statutory authorization" over the last couple of years. Jayapal introduced a House bill last year to that effect. The legislation has been referred to the Judiciary and Oversight and Reform committees. Sen. Ron Wyden also introduced a bill last April aimed at blocking law enforcement and intelligence agencies from buying data from Clearview AI. The Fourth Amendment is Not For Sale Act drew bipartisan support, but has yet to move forward in the Senate.

Other federal agencies, including the Departments of Agriculture and Veterans Affairs, have used or planned to use facial recognition technology, according to the GAO report. The Inland Revenue Service said this week it will ditch a facial recognition system it was using for verification purposes, following a backlash from lawmakers and others.

Clearview, meanwhile, has been the subject of investigations, lawsuits and scrutiny in the US, UK, Australia, Europe and elsewhere. In November, the company was fined £17 million for breaching UK data protection laws. 

A report last year suggested that employees from more than 1,803 government bodies, such as police departments and public schools, used Clearview's services without approval. The company's CEO, Hoan Ton-That, said in the past that Clearview had contracts with thousands of 2,400 police agencies and departments. Some jurisdictions and law enforcement departments have banned the company's tech.

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