Pluralistic: Kashmir Hill's "Your Face Belongs to Us" (20 Sept 2023)

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The cover of the Penguin Random House edition of Kashmir Hill's 'Your Face Belongs To Us.'

Kashmir Hill's "Your Face Belongs to Us" (permalink)

Your Face Belongs To Us is Kashmir Hill's new tell-all history of Clearview AI, the creepy facial recognition company whose origins are mired in far-right politics, off-the-books police misconduct, sales to authoritarian states and sleazy one-percenter one-upmanship:

Hill is a fitting chronicler here. Clearview first rose to prominence – or, rather, notoriety – with the publication of her 2020 expose on the company, which had scraped more than a billion facial images from the web, and then started secretly marketing a search engine for faces to cops, spooks, private security firms, and, eventually, repressive governments:

Hill's original blockbuster expose was followed by an in-depth magazine feature and then a string of further articles, which revealed the company's origins in white nationalist movements, and the mercurial journey of its founder, Hoan Ton-That:

The story of Clearview's technology is an interesting one, a story about the machine learning gold-rush where modestly talented technologists who could lay hands on sufficient data could throw it together with off-the-shelf algorithms and do things that had previously been considered impossible. While Clearview has plenty of competitors today, as recently as a couple of years ago, it played like a magic trick.

That's where the more interesting story of Clearview's founding comes in. Hill is a meticulous researcher and had the benefit of a disaffected – and excommunicated – Clearview co-founder, who provided her with masses of internal communications. She also benefited from the court documents from the flurry of lawsuits that Clearview prompted.

What emerges from these primary sources – including multiple interviews with Ton-That – is a story about a move-fast-and-break-things company at the tail end of the forgiveness-not-permission era of technological development. Clearview's founders are violating laws and norms, they're short on cash, and they're racing across the river on the backs of alligators, hoping to reach the riches on the opposite bank without losing a leg.

A decade ago, they might have played as heroes. Today, they're just grifters – bullshitters faking it until they make it, lying to Hill (and getting caught out), and the rest of us. The founders themselves are erratic weirdos, and not the fun kind of weirdos, either. Ton-That – who emigrated to Silicon Valley from Australia as a teenager, seeking a techie's fortune – comes across as a bro-addled dimbulb who threw his lot in with white nationalists, MAGA Republicans, Rudy Giuliani bagmen, Peter Thiel, and assorted other tech-adjacent goblins.

Meanwhile, biometrics generally – and facial recognition specifically – is a discipline with a long and sordid history, inextricably entwined with phrenology and eugenics, as Hill describes in a series of interstitial chapters that recount historical attempts to identify the facial features that correspond with criminality and low intelligence.

These interstitials are woven into a-ha moments from Clearview's history, in which various investors, employees, hangers-on, competitors and customers speculate about how a facial-recognition system could eventually not just recognize criminals, but predict criminality. It's a potent reminder of the AI industry's many overlaps with "race-science" and other quackeries.

Hill also describes how Clearview and its competitors' recklessness and arrogance created the openings for shrewd civil libertarians to secure bipartisan support for biometric privacy laws, most notably Illinois' best-of-breed Biometric Information Privacy Act:

But by the end of the book, Hill makes the case that Ton-That and his competitors have gotten away with it. Facial recognition is now so easy to build that – she says – we're unlikely to abolish it, despite all the many horrifying ways that FR could fuck up our societies. It's a sobering conclusion, and while Hill holds out some hope for curbing the official use of FR, she seems resigned to a future in which – for example – creepy guys covertly snap photos of women on the street, use those pictures to figure out their names and addresses, and then stalk and harass them.

If she's right, then this is Ton-That's true legacy, and the legacy of the funders who handed him millions to spend building this. Perhaps someone else would have stepped into that sweaty, reckless-grifter-shaped hole if Ton-That hadn't been there to fill it, but in our timeline, we can say that Ton-That was the bumbler who helped destroy something precious.

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

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Colophon (permalink)

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