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YouTube demands Clearview AI to stop scrapping its videos

February 06, 2020 / Sujata Bondge

  • Google and its sprawling YouTube empire urged Clearview to cease slurping any more images from its videos and web pages.

  • Twitter sent a cease-and-desist letter to Clearview last month, addressing the same issue.

  • Clearview AI founder Hoan Ton-That believes his New-York City-based business has a “First Amendment right to public information.

Along with Twitter, Google-owned YouTube has become the latest one to send a cease-and-desist letter to Clearview AI, the startup behind a controversial facial recognition program that more than 600 police departments across North American use.

Clearview came under scrutiny earlier this year when The New York Times showed that the company had been scraping billions of images on the internet to build its database of faces. Their AI technology can use an image of a person and then find more links where that face has appeared.

The company has been claimed that it has more than 3 billion images in that database, images that were scrapped from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other websites. In January 2020, Twitter Inc. demanded that Clearview stop collecting photos for any reason from its app and delete photos already it has in the database. At the same time, a group of U.S. senators expressed that such technology was an invasion of people’s privacy.

And now Google LLC has asked Clearview to stop scrapping YouTube videos for its database as well as delete any facial data that is already gathered. It has sent a cease-and-desist letter further.

In an interview with CBS This Morning, the company's CEO, Hoan Ton-That, said Clearview plans to challenge the cease-and-desist letters in court. Ton-That compared Clearview's practice of scraping the internet for images to what Google does with its search engine. "Google can pull in information from all different websites," he said. "So if it's public, you know, and it's out there, it could be inside Google search engine, it can be inside ours as well." He then went on to argue the company has a First Amendment right to public information.

“The way we have built our system is to only take publicly available information and index it.”

-Hoan Ton-That, CEO, Clearview

Clearview may be in a legally precarious position since it likely does not have explicit permission to use many, if not the vast majority, of the photos its service relies on. Still, it’s not clear how enforceable YouTube’s terms of service are in this case.


But YouTube, Venmo, and Twitter denies the statement and say the company is violating its policies by accessing data from their platform.

“Most websites want to be included in Google Search, and we give webmasters control over what information from their site is included in our search results, including the option to opt-out entirely,” said Google. “Clearview secretly collected image data of individuals without their consent, and in violation of rules explicitly forbidding them from doing so.”

-Alex Joseph, YouTube Spokesperson

In addition to collecting photos, Clearview allegedly uses them to train AI to identify people. Its AI can identify a person by comparing their picture to its database of three billion images from the internet, and the results are 99.6% accurate. It works even if the initial image fed into the tool is blurry or if the face is partially obscured, apparently. The app is used by more than 600 law enforcement agencies, ranging from local police departments to the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security. Law enforcement officials told The Times that the app had helped them identify suspects in many criminal cases.


The Chicago Police Department, one of the largest in the U.S., pays roughly $50,000 for a two-year contract with the company. The department said only 30 members have exclusive access to the technology and it does not use the facial matching technology to conduct live surveillance. New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal recently ordered state law enforcement agencies to temporarily stop using the technology until they learn more.

Learn more: Facial recognition database used by U.S. police

Asked what his concerns about the technology were, Grewal said, "I'm not categorically opposed to facial recognition technology. I think used properly, it can help us solve criminal cases more quickly. It can help us apprehend child abusers, domestic terrorists." But he added, "What I am opposed to is the wide-scale collection of biometric information and the use of it without proper safeguards by law enforcement."

If it goes ahead with its legal plan, Clearview wouldn’t be the first company to try and use the First Amendment to defend its data scraping practices. In 2017, a data analytics company called hiQ Labs tried to use a similar argument when it sued LinkedIn so that it could continue scraping the social network for publically available data. And while it ultimately lost the case, at least one notable constitutional law expert took up the company’s argument.

Not long ago but Facebook agreed to pay a huge amount to settle a case of facial recognition. At the moment, there aren’t any federal laws that regulate facial recognition — though some cities such as San Francisco have partially banned the technology. It’s likely Google’s legal involvement with Clearview will force the government to address the issue before long.