Coinbase tested facial recognition software developed by controversial startup Clearview AI

Quick Take

  • Coinbase was among a large group of companies that tested facial recognition software from Clearview AI.
  • Clearview has provided services to more than 2,200 entities, including Wells Fargo and Bank of America as well as law enforcement agencies.
  • The startup has attracted considerable controversy and is currently facing legal threats from social media giants like Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube for collecting images without user consent.

More than two thousand companies have tested or used facial recognition software developed by Clearview AI – a list that includes crypto exchange firm Coinbase – according to a new report.

BuzzFeed reviewed the startup’s internal documents and published its findings on Friday, revealing that more than 2,200 companies, public sector entities, and individuals have made use of Clearview AI's search toolkit. Clearview AI is currently embroiled in disputes with Facebook, Google, Youtube, and Twitter over its use of those platforms.

Clearview's search tool obtains data and images from publicly available sources like social media sites without users’ consent. Its goal, as the company states on its website, is to help U.S. law enforcement track down criminals from shoplifters to terrorists.

The majority of the startup's users are law enforcement entities, the report said, but private entities also participated. The client list encompasses a wide range of industries, from the NBA and Eventbrite to Las Vegas Sands and fitness chain Equinox. Notably, 46 financial institutions, including Bank of America and Wells Fargo, have tested the tool.

A spokesperson for Coinbase told Buzzfeed that the firm experimented with Clearview AI due to its "unique needs around security and compliance." At the same time, the exchange said that it had not used the service with customer data. 

"Our security and compliance teams tested Clearview AI to see if the service could meaningfully bolster our efforts to protect employees and offices against physical threats and investigate fraud," the spokesperson said. "At this time, we have not made any commitments to use Clearview AI."

The startup had primarily been operating under the radar, with only approximately $7 million in funding, as investments tracking website Pitchbook shows. However, controversy around it broke into public view after the New York Times published an overview of Clearview AI's business model in January and identified privacy risks associated with it. According to the startup's marketing materials, clients can search up to 3 billion photos with its toolkit.

Clearview AI's ambitious project has also angered a number of social media giants. 

In January, Twitter issued a cease-and-desist letter to the startup, claiming that Clearview AI has violated its platform policy. Indeed, Twitter's developer agreement states that "information derived from Twitter content may not be used by, or knowingly displayed, distributed, or otherwise made available to any public-sector entity for surveillance purposes."

Facebook, Google, and Youtube have since followed Twitter and demanded that Clearview AI stop collecting images from their platforms.

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