Billionaire supermarket tycoon used creepy facial recognition app Clearview AI to investigate the man his daughter was dating despite firm’s claim it is only accessible to law enforcement and security pros

  • John Catsimatidis, 71, used the app to identify his daughter’s dinner companion
  • He was given access to the facial recognition tech after his company trialled it
  • The Gristedes Food CEO appears one of many individuals with access to the app
  • This counters Clearview’s claim that the system is ‘not a consumer application’ 
  • Clearview AI is already controversial for using images ripped from social media

A billionaire supermarket tycoon used the creepy facial recognition app Clearview AI to investigate his daughter’s date as she dined in a Manhattan restaurant.

Gristedes Food CEO John Catsimatidis, 71, spotted his daughter, Andrea, on a date with an unfamiliar man while dining at Cipriani Downtown, an Italian restaurant in the SoHo neighbourhood of Lower Manhattan, in the October of 2018.

Enlisting a waiter to secure a photo of the mystery individual, Mr Catsimatidis ran the image through the Clearview AI facial recognition system, which cross referenced the image with photos scraped from sites like Facebook and Instagram.

The app produced a selection of other images of the man, along with the websites on which they appeared.

The billionaire was able to discover that his daughter’s date was a venture capitalist who hailed from San Francisco, California — information he proceeded to text to Ms Catsimatidis from across the restaurant.

Mr Catsimatidis was able to do this despite Clearview’s claim that its app is only accessible to law enforcement and security professionals, revealing that the firm has also granted app access to various prospective investors and clients. 

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A billionaire supermarket tycoon used the creepy facial recognition app Clearview AI to get intel on his daughter’s date as she dined in a Manhattan restaurant. Pictured, Gristedes Food CEO John Catsimatidis, left, seen here with his daughter Andrea

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE CLEARVIEW AI APP? 

Clearview AI is a facial-recognition app used by more than 600 US and Canadian law enforcement agencies.

Photographs submitted to the service are cross-referenced against a database of billions of portraits.

Controversially, these images were scraped from social media sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter against their terms of service.

Clearview have claimed that the app is only for law enforcers and approved security personnel.

However, it appears that access to the app has been granted to various other parties, primarily prospective and actual investors in the app.

Pictured, the Clearview logo

Mr Catsimatidis’ daughter was surprisingly unfazed by the incident. 

‘I expect my dad to be able to do crazy things. He’s very technologically savvy,’ Ms. Catsimatidis told the New York Times. 

She added: ‘My date was very surprised.’ 

‘I wanted to make sure he wasn’t a charlatan,’ explained Mr. Catsimatidis. 

The controversial Clearview app works by searching its colossal database of more than three billion portraits — taken from social media sites such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter — for matches.

Clearview co-founder Hoan Ton-That, 31, has dismissed concerns over the origins of the image library that fuels his software — comparing it to a regular search engine.

‘Google can pull in information from all different websites,’ Mr Ton-That told CBS This Morning during an interview last month.

‘There is a First Amendment right to public information. The way that we have built our system is to only take publicly available information and index it that way.’

‘So if it’s public, you know, and it’s out there, it could be inside Google search engine, it can be inside ours as well.’

Nevertheless, many social media firms have objected to Clearview’s mining of images from their platforms — and responded with cease-and-desist letters.

‘YouTube’s Terms of Service explicitly forbid collecting data that can be used to identify a person,’ YouTube spokesperson Alex Joseph told Business Insider.

‘Clearview has publicly admitted to doing exactly that, and in response we sent them a cease and desist letter.’

Despite Mr Ton-That’s nonchalant response to the criticism, the firm has made efforts to stress its claim that the app is intended only for use in law enforcement.

‘Clearview’s app is NOT available to the public,’ the firm wrote in a blog post. 

The tech, they added, ‘exists to help law enforcement agencies solve the toughest cases, and our technology comes with strict guidelines and safeguards to ensure investigators use it for its intended purpose only.’

Clearview also released a code of conduct, which claimed that their search engine ‘is available only for law enforcement agencies and select security professionals to use as an investigative tool’ and has ‘built-in safeguards’ to ensure against its misuse.

‘We strictly enforce our Code of Conduct, and suspend or terminate users who violate it.’

Enlisting a waiter to secure a photo of the mystery individual, Mr Catsimatidis ran the image through the Clearview AI facial recognition system, which dutifully produced a selection of other images of the man and the website at which they appeared. Pictured, Mr Catsimatidis is seen here with his daughter, Andrea

Despite Clearview’s claims, it appears that a number of individuals outside of law enforcement and authorised security agencies have had access to — and made public use of — the app’s identification capabilities.

‘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,’ Mr Ton-That told the New York Times.

The firm reportedly courted a variety of potential investors after developing their facial recognition engine in 2017 — among whom were banks, retailers and real estate firms.

In the end, Clearview secured seed capital of around $1 million (£0.77 million) from backers including noted investors Peter Thiel and Hal Lambert, as well as the venture capitalist David Scalzo. 

‘I have the app. I’ve used it to talk about what we’re doing in the space, ‘ Mr Lambert told the New York Times. He added: ‘I show it to friends of mine, potential investors.’

Mr Scalzo — who founded the investment firm Kirenaga Partners —  has said that his two young daughters have enjoyed playing with the app.

‘They like to use it on themselves and their friends to see who they look like in the world. It’s kind of fun for people,’ he told the New York Times.

‘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,’ Clearview co-founder Hoan Ton-That, pictured, told the New York Times

According to the New York Times, Mr Catsimatidis became aware of Clearview through his friendship with the company’s other founder, Richard Schwartz.

Last summer, the billionaire ran a trial with Clearview at one of the Gristedes Food’s Manhattan East Side supermarkets, using the facial recognition software to identify shoplifters or people known to have held up other stores.

‘People were stealing our Häagen-Dazs. It was a big problem,’ Mr Catsimatidis told the New York Times. 

In 2016, the billionaire had offered a $5,000 (£3,848) reward for information on a gang of criminals that had been stealing cartons of ice cream from Gristedes stores and reportedly reselling them to local bodegas, or grocery stores.

Clearview, Mr Catsimatidis concluded, was a ‘good system’ that helped security personnel to identify miscreants.


Gristedes Food CEO Mr Catsimatidis (left) was able to discover that the unfamiliar date of his daughter (right) was a venture capitalist who hailed from San Francisco, California — information he proceeded to text to Ms Catsimatidis from across the restaurant

Gristedes Food is reportedly not the only firm to have explored potential applications of the Clearview software.

According to BuzzFeed News, the Clearview App has been used by US retailers Best Buy, Macy’s and Walmart, as well as the National Basketball Association, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and communications providers AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile.

In addition, New York labour union the United Federation of Teachers and real estate firm Rudin Management have reportedly conducted trials of a surveillance camera built on the same technology.

According to the New York Times, AI expert Nicholas Cassimatis was also permitted to retain access to the service after performing a free internal accuracy test on the Clearview system as a favour for Mr. Ton-That, whom he knew socially.

Mr Cassimatis claimed to have subsequently run dozens of searches in the app.

‘I tested it in surprising places: smoky bars, dark places. And it worked every time,’ he told the New York Times.

‘It’s road testing. I do it as a hobby. I ask people for permission.’ 

‘It’s like a parlour trick. People like it.’

‘It is absolutely shocking that this software is available on a smartphone, but even more so to think that if you’re wealthy enough you can purchase software intended only for law enforcement,’ said ESET cybersecurity specialist Jake Moore

‘It is absolutely shocking that this software is available on a smartphone, but even more so to think that if you’re wealthy enough you can purchase software intended only for law enforcement,’ said ESET cybersecurity specialist Jake Moore.

‘People should not be privileged to take software that identifies people like this into their own hands,’ he added.

‘Facial recognition is already a worry to many but it takes it to a new level should the public be able to conduct their own searches.

‘This could be the start of something huge, where people will be able to hold their phone up to anyone on the street and instantly know their online profile and history.

‘Clearly we have to reduce and limit the amount of personal information we store on the internet and we should therefore always be cautious about what we post online.’

HOW DOES FACIAL RECOGNITION TECHNOLOGY WORK?

Facial recognition software works by matching real time images to a previous photograph of a person. 

Each face has approximately 80 unique nodal points across the eyes, nose, cheeks and mouth which distinguish one person from another. 

A digital video camera measures the distance between various points on the human face, such as the width of the nose, depth of the eye sockets, distance between the eyes and shape of the jawline.

A different smart surveillance system (pictured) can scan 2 billion faces within seconds has been revealed in China. The system connects to millions of CCTV cameras and uses artificial intelligence to pick out targets. The military is working on applying a similar version of this with AI to track people across the country 

This produces a unique numerical code that can then be linked with a matching code gleaned from a previous photograph.

A facial recognition system used by officials in China connects to millions of CCTV cameras and uses artificial intelligence to pick out targets.

Experts believe that facial recognition technology will soon overtake fingerprint technology as the most effective way to identify people. 

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