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Terrifying Clearview app could be the end of anonymity in public places

New facial recognition technology could be used to identify anyone who steps foot in a public place, and it’s already in use by police in the U.S., according to a report by the New York Times.

A tiny company called Clearview developed an app that can use an existing photo of a person to search for other photos of them online, along with links to where those photos are hosted. The company says the app accesses a database of more than three billion images, collected from social media sites like Facebook and YouTube.

The app has been provided to “hundreds of law enforcement agencies, ranging from local cops in Florida to the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security,” according to the NYT, and could be in use across the U.S. and beyond. Law enforcement officers have confirmed they have used the app to investigate a range of crimes, from the serious to the petty.

Facial recognition technology is already changing life as we know it, being used for security checks at airports, for police investigations, and for monitoring large events like concerts. However, existing technology generally images faces and matches them to a set database, such as a list of persons wanted by law enforcement. The Clearview technology, on the other hand, essentially allows the identification of anyone it images who has a presence online and also provides a list of links to sites to learn more about that person.

This is concerning not only because of the potentially disastrous privacy implications but also because of the power it gives to a private company. Law enforcement agencies admitted to the NYT that they didn’t fully understand how the software worked, and also that Clearview appears to have the ability to monitor who law enforcement is running searches on.

Recently, people have been questioning whether tech companies have too much power and whether they should be providing privacy-invading technology to law enforcement. Amazon has been roundly criticized for its providing of facial recognition software to law enforcement, with civil rights organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union saying that the technology is “primed for abuse in the hands of governments” and that it “poses a grave threat to communities, including people of color and immigrants, and to the trust and respect Amazon has worked to build.”

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