We live in the age of AI. In our own lifetimes, we have left behind a planet of mystery and adventure, and entered a world without wilderness. Thanks to GPS and mobile towers, the sport of the explorer is dead; one cannot even be lost anymore unless so determined. And now, adding a fresh dimension to this confinement of the soul come a bunch of face recognition software developed over the past five years.
From a single photograph of a face in the crowd taken from a distance these software can trace their Internet footprint to identify and locate any random person on the globe. That has immense disruptive potential for it can be used both against individuals on a whim or with racist, sexist or communal motivations at an individual, departmental or organisational level as well as to bring down unfriendly governments on an international scale. Activists may be targeted, as might journalists’ sources.
The present volume under review is an exciting meta-narrative by a New York Times reporter about how she did the exposé that blew the lid off of Clearview AI, the mother of them all. Founded as recently as in 2017, the company maintained a low profile until late 2019 when the use of its product by American police to apprehend suspects came to light. This news arrived as an email tip from a trusted source in the inbox of Kashmir Hill, business and technology reporter of The New York Times. Hill’s persistence and her classic shoe-leather journalism was rewarded when Hoan Ton-That, CEO of Clearview, relented and contacted her for an interview.
The Vietnamese-Australian Ton-That is a talented guitarist – it is worth sampling his haunting “Tremolo” on the Net – and as a precocious programmer followed his tech dream to Silicon Valley on the coattails of an Indian-origin engineer, Naval Ravikant, while still a teenager. His name, meaning “clan member” or “royal family member” originates from the Nguyen dynasty, Vietnam’s last line of monarchs. A long-haired maverick who is now 35, he is quite opinionated and has the controversial reputation of being a Donald Trump supporter which he now denies. But it is the Republican politician, Richard Schwartz, who helped found his company. Ton-That insists his clients comprise solely of law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and various city police departments such as San Diego and New York. His website states that it is typically deployed in paedophilia cases, is currently ensuring the safety of military personnel and citizens in the Ukraine war and has also assisted in tracking down those who attacked the US Capitol. Ton-That has even developed a pair of goggles that link to the website and can photograph anyone from ten feet away and thus identify them. He proposes to expand this technology in such a way that it can be applied during warfare so as to avoid friendly fire.
Duplicate software have come out in the wake of Clearview which is still highly controversial, banned as it is in six countries even while the Gujarat police department in 2020 planned to instal it for mass surveillance.
Pacey and informative, Hill’s narrative swings between subjects as wide-ranging as eugenics, DARPA, the history of the Web and Aristotle’s physiognomy and provides a window to the geek culture of today’s times. Did you know, for instance, how British political firm Cambridge Analytica hired an academic to create a Facebook personality quiz that sucked up data of the person who took it, along with that of all of their friends, to crunch it and deliver perfectly targeted messages calibrated to sway the voter and help Trump to power? The scandal hit the headlines in 2018, two years after the November 2016 US election, but it was not Facebook that was solely to blame. Interestingly, Ton-That had started off creating “Have You Ever,” “Would You Rather,” “Friend Quiz,” and “Romantic Gifts”, a host of similar quizzes, that he monetised with little banner ads while piggybacking on Facebook until his YouTube imitator app ViddyHo imploded, leading him to close shop in 2009. Apart from the ethical, legal and political questions that Hill raises, these little nuggets of nostalgia are what the reader gleans from this book.
Your Face Belongs to Us
By Kashmir Hill
Simon & Schuster
pp. 352, RS.799