- Kashmir Hill's "Your Face Belongs to Us": A candid, whistleblower-informed history of Clearview AI.
- Hey look at this: Delights to delectate.
- This day in history: 2003, 2008, 2013, 2018, 2022
- Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming/recent appearances, current writing projects, current reading
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 adn then a string more articles, which revealed the company's origins in white nationalist movements, and the mercurial jourey 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 Guiliani bagmen, Peter Theil, and assorted other tech-adjascent 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 indentify 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 quack beliefs.
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, 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)
- Mastoreader https://mastoreader.io/ (h/t Deborah Hartmann Preuss)
Framework Mainboard powers this modular, upgradable handheld gaming PC https://liliputing.com/framework-mainboard-powers-this-modular-upgradable-handheld-gaming-pc/ (h/t Slashdot)
Danish artist must repay funding after submitting empty frames titled "Take the money and run" https://boingboing.net/2023/09/19/danish-artist-must-repay-funding-after-submitting-empty-frames-titled-take-the-money-and-run.html
This day in history (permalink)
#20yrsago Fed cop slams Verisign https://web.archive.org/web/20030923083005/http://dnm.sieve.net/tdw/2003_09_01_entry.html
#15yrsago Cybersquatters register domains for potential bank-mergers https://www.theguardian.com/business/2008/sep/21/technology.banking
#10yrsago Implementing a Turing machine in Excel https://www.felienne.com/archives/2974
#10yrsago Ryanair vows to reduce fewer customers to tears https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-24171384
#10yrsago Jungle Boat skipper gives a tour of the wall around the construction site https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DakW1GtyTVA
#10yrsago Terms and Conditions May Apply: documentary about abusive license terms, privacy and surveillance https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/sep/19/data-digital-identity-cullen-hoback
#5yrsago Defunct Vancouver tech retailer’s servers sold off, containing credit cards and other customer details https://www.eteknix.com/ncix-database-servers-sold-craigslist-without-wiped/
#5yrsago California farm lobby’s sellout to John Deere will cost its members their right to repair https://www.wired.com/story/john-deere-farmers-right-to-repair/
#5yrsago Middle school cop who arrested seventh graders “to prove a point” may yet face consequences https://www.techdirt.com/2018/09/20/ninth-circuit-says-no-you-fucking-may-not-arrest-bunch-middle-school-students-to-prove-point/
#5yrsago Puerto Rico is a tax-haven for rich mainlanders and is also too broke to survive hurricanes: are these facts possibly related, somehow? https://www.gq.com/story/how-puerto-rico-became-tax-haven-for-super-rich
#5yrsago Carriers to FCC: Americans would totally be happy with throttled, capped wireless at home instead of home fiber https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2018/09/despite-data-caps-and-throttling-industry-says-mobile-can-replace-home-internet/
#5yrsago Nature’s greatest con-artists: the parasitic beetles that trick ants into barfing into their mouths https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJ-k0TBwvL0
#5yrsago Supreme Court decision will rip away Dark Money’s veil of secrecy https://www.commondreams.org/news/2018/09/19/supreme-court-decision-dark-money-were-about-know-lot-more-about-who-funding-our
#5yrsago As Canada-US trade-war draws nigh, so does the threat to nationalise US pharma patents https://ca.finance.yahoo.com/news/canadian-officials-mulling-attack-u-s-pharma-says-ottawa-lawyer-165038690.html
#5yrsago Europe’s copyright catastrophe is a harbinger of bad times for Canadians https://macleans.ca/opinion/the-spectre-of-bad-internet-laws-in-europe-should-be-a-warning-shot-for-canadians/
#1yrago Book-banning wingnuts are a tiny, vocal minority https://pluralistic.net/2022/09/20/the-moral-majority/#is-neither
Today's top sources:
- A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING
Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS JAN 2025
The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS FEB 2024
Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM
Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION
Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM
Latest podcast: Plausible Sentence Generators https://craphound.com/news/2023/09/17/plausible-sentence-generators/
- DIG Festival (Modena, Italy), Sept 22
Launch for Justin C Key's "The World Wasn’t Ready for You," Book Soup (LA), Sept 22
Launch for "The Internet Con" and Brian Merchant's "Blood in the Machine," Chevalier's Books (LA), Sept 27
An Evening with VE Schwab (Boise), Oct 2
Wired Nextfest (Milano), Oct 7-8
The Internet Con at Moon Palace Books (Minneapolis), Oct 15
26th ACM Conference On Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing keynote (Minneapolis), Oct 16
41st annual McCreight Lecture in the Humanities (Charleston, WV), Oct 19
Seizing the Means of Computation (Edinburgh Futures Institute), Oct 25
- The Jim Rutt Show
How to Take Back the Internet (Wired Have a Nice Future)
Sci-fi and Amazon's empire (The Workers' Speculative Society)
- The Internet Con: A nonfiction book about interoperability and Big Tech (Verso) September 2023 (http://seizethemeansofcomputation.org). Signed copies at Book Soup (https://www.booksoup.com/book/9781804291245).
"Red Team Blues": "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books http://redteamblues.com. Signed copies at Dark Delicacies (US): and Forbidden Planet (UK): https://forbiddenplanet.com/385004-red-team-blues-signed-edition-hardcover/.
"Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin", on how to unrig the markets for creative labor, Beacon Press/Scribe 2022 https://chokepointcapitalism.com
"Attack Surface": The third Little Brother novel, a standalone technothriller for adults. The Washington Post called it "a political cyberthriller, vigorous, bold and savvy about the limits of revolution and resistance." Order signed, personalized copies from Dark Delicacies https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1840/Available_Now%3A_Attack_Surface.html
"How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism": an anti-monopoly pamphlet analyzing the true harms of surveillance capitalism and proposing a solution. https://onezero.medium.com/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism-8135e6744d59 (print edition: https://bookshop.org/books/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism/9781736205907) (signed copies: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p2024/Available_Now%3A__How_to_Destroy_Surveillance_Capitalism.html)
"Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new introduction by Edward Snowden: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583; personalized/signed copies here: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1750/July%3A__Little_Brother_%26_Homeland.html
"Poesy the Monster Slayer" a picture book about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Order here: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627. Get a personalized, signed copy here: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p2682/Corey_Doctorow%3A_Poesy_the_Monster_Slayer_HB.html#/.
- The Lost Cause: a post-Green New Deal eco-topian novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias, Tor Books, November 2023
The Bezzle: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about prison-tech and other grifts, Tor Books, February 2024
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