How Clearview is Helping the Trump Administration Target Undocumented Immigrants

A small US company sells an app that could end our ability to walk down the street anonymously. Its clients include authoritarian states and US immigration authorities. Jacinta Gonzalez, an organizer with the NGO Mijente, spoke with us about why this puts the 11 million undocumented people in the United States at even greater risk of deportation.

published on the NUDGED blog, March 14, 2020 >>

In January, a New York Times article revealed that 600 US police agencies use a tool by a previously unknown company, Clearview AI, to instantly identify almost anybody based on their face. The small New York-based company admits having built a database of more than two billion images scraped from the internet, mostly from Social Media sites, without permission or notice. After taking a biometric scan (a “faceprint”) of a person, it combs through these databases to match it with all faces with identical features.

Google also offers image search and facial recognition, but it keeps them separate. While the company has the capacity to combine both techniques, ethical safeguards kept it from developing a Clearview-like tool. Way back in 2011, then Google CEO Eric Schmidt said it was the one technology the company had held back because it could be used “in a very bad way”. He predicted that sooner or later, a company would, however, cross “the creepy line”. Nearly a decade later, the NYT article shows that he was right.

For the first time in history, an app has been introduced that “could end your ability to walk down the street anonymously” as the NYT author writes. So far, the surveillance apparatus built by the Chinese government has been understood to be unmatched; it has become infamous for violently targeting the Uighur minority and everybody with a low “social credit”. But in all of this, China still relies on DNA samples that can only narrow down a manhunt but not provide definite matches. The Clearview app is more precise than anything used in China so far.

As if this was not enough, the full extent of the scandal only became clear when Clearview’s entire client list was stolen and published a month later: Contrary to the company’s claims, the app has not at all been exclusively used by US law enforcement. Instead, more than 2,900 organizations are using the software according to BuzzFeed News who reviewed the list, including businesses, schools, foreign governments in countries such as Saudi Arabia – as well as immigration enforcement.

All these clients warrant a critical look. However, the leaked information suggests that the 11 million undocumented people in the US are at risk of being systematically targeted with the help of this app – especially given US president Donald Trump’s promise to his voters to deport as many of them as possible, no matter their background. According to BuzzFeed, agents working for the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have made 8,000 searches via 60 different accounts registered in New Jersey, New York City and the border town El Paso; Customs and Border Protection (CBP) made 7,500 searches via 280 accounts.

The Latinx advocacy group Mijente has worked at the intersection of big data and immigration rights for years. The leader of its “No tech for ICE” campaign, Jacinta Gonzalez, spoke with us on the phone about how the Clearview app might be used to target undocumented immigrants.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

NUDGED: As we learned last month, the immigration enforcement agencies ICE and CBP have both secretly made thousands of faceprint searches with a previously unknown app. Jacinta, were you surprised to learn about this?

Jacinta Gonzalez: I find it terrifying that a small company with few employees can build such a powerful, invasive tool that dramatically shifts the way that immigration enforcement looks like in this country without any sort of oversight or accountability. However, I was not very surprised.

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Header image: The photomontage does not show an undocumented immigrant but Ricky Martin. (CC) Clearview Logo/Wikimedia + (CC) Eva Rinaldi/Wikimedia, photo montage: Christina Felschen