NEW YORK – Greek-American billionaire John Catsimatidis was featured in a recent New York Times article for his use of Clearview AI, a facial recognition app, to view shoppers in his supermarkets and to identify a man out on a date with his daughter, Andrea.
According to the Times report, “Clearview was unknown to the general public until this January, when The New York Times reported that the secretive start-up had developed a breakthrough facial recognition system that was in use by hundreds of law enforcement agencies.”
Following “backlash on multiple fronts” including cease-and-desist letters from Facebook, Google and other tech giants, and lawsuits filed in Illinois and Virginia, and the attorney general of New Jersey issuing “a moratorium against the app in that state,” the company “published a ‘code of conduct,’ emphasizing in a blog post that its technology was ‘available only for law enforcement agencies and select security professionals to use as an investigative tool,’” the Times reported.
The blog post read, “We recognize that powerful tools always have the potential to be abused, regardless of who is using them, and we take the threat very seriously. Accordingly, the Clearview app has built-in safeguards to ensure these trained professionals only use it for its intended purpose: to help identify the perpetrators and victims of crimes,” the Times reported.
However, Catsimatidis is among the individuals that the Times found who have “active access to Clearview’s technology who are not law enforcement officials.”
While at dinner one evening in October 2018 at Cipriani, Catsimatidis saw his daughter walk into the restaurant with a date he did not recognize, the Times reported, adding that “after the couple sat down at another table, Mr. Catsimatidis asked a waiter to go over and take a photo.”
After uploading the photo to the Clearview app, “within seconds, Mr. Catsimatidis was viewing a collection of photos of the mystery man, along with the web addresses where they appeared: His daughter’s date was a venture capitalist from San Francisco,” the Times reported, pointing out that “the start-up behind the app has a database of billions of photos, scraped from sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.”
“I wanted to make sure he wasn’t a charlatan,” Catsimatidis told the Times, adding that he “then texted the man’s biography to his daughter.”
Ms. Catsimatidis told the Times that “she and her date had no idea how her father had identified him so quickly.”
“I expect my dad to be able to do crazy things. He’s very technologically savvy. My date was very surprised,” she told the Times.
According to the Times report, “those with Clearview logins used facial recognition at parties, on dates and at business gatherings, giving demonstrations of its power for fun or using it to identify people whose names they didn’t know or couldn’t recall.”
“As part of the ordinary course of due diligence, we provided trial accounts to potential and current investors, and other strategic partners, so they could test the technology,” the company’s co-founder Hoan Ton-That, told the Times.
Catsimatidis “first heard about Clearview from his friend Richard Schwartz, another founder of the company, who served as an aide to Rudolph W. Giuliani when Mr. Giuliani was mayor of New York, the Times reported, adding that “last summer, Mr. Catsimatidis ran a trial project with Clearview at an East Side Gristedes market.”
Catsimatidis told the Times that the company “used the system to identify known ‘shoplifters or people who had held up other stores,’” adding that “people were stealing our Haagen-Dazs. It was a big problem.”
He “described Clearview as a ‘good system’ that helped security personnel identify problem shoppers,” the Times reported.
The Times cited a Buzzfeed News report that listed others who have used the app including a labor union, a real estate firm, Macys, Kohl’s, and the NBA.
According to the Times report, Ton-That and Schwartz were looking for investors in 2017 and gave personal log-ins to individuals they approached.
“Clearview received a seed investment round of about $1 million in July 2018,” the Times reported, adding that “its backers included the billionaire investor Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist David Scalzo, and Hal Lambert, an investor in Texas who runs an exchange-traded fund with the ticker symbol MAGA, which tracks companies that align with Republican politics.”
Actor and venture capitalist Ashton Kutcher spoke about the app in a YouTube video, “It’s a facial recognition app. I can hold it up to anybody’s face here and, like, find exactly who you are, what internet accounts you’re on, what they look like. It’s terrifying,” the Times reported.
“In October, Clearview asked Nicholas Cassimatis, an expert on artificial intelligence, to help conduct an internal accuracy test,” the Times reported, pointing out that “he did the work for free, he said, because he knew Mr. Ton-That socially.”
“The test consisted of submitting the faces of 834 federal and state legislators,” the Times reported, adding that “Clearview’s algorithms accurately identified every one of the politicians.”
After the test was complete, “Cassimatis was allowed to keep Clearview’s app on his phone” following the test, the Times reported, noting that “he said he had since run dozens of searches.”
“I tested it in surprising places: smoky bars, dark places. And it worked every time. It’s road testing. I do it as a hobby. I ask people for permission. It’s like a parlor trick. People like it,” Cassimatis said, the Times reported.