Feb 10, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

That's the shift key, not a snooze button. Nope, that's the space bar. I know, none of us like Mondays. But it's here.

Today's Login is 1,228 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Clearview brings facial recognition concerns into focus

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

People warning about the potentially chilling collision of big data sets and emerging technologies can now point to Clearview, the secretive facial recognition startup that scraped images from some of the largest public internet sites to create a database now used by hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the country.

Why it matters: Facial recognition tools have already raised privacy concerns in the U.S. and abroad, particularly when they're used by government, but the controversy over Clearview has shown that both industry and law enforcement are moving faster than the debate.

To recap: The issue came to light in mid-January when the New York Times published a startling exposé by Kashmir Hill on the company and its database of more than 3 billion images taken from various web sites.

Since then there have been:

Clearview remains a tiny company that was started with seed money from Peter Thiel, the Trump-supporting tech entrepreneur who sits on Facebook's board, and co-founded by a former aide to New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

  • But Clearview told the Times its database was in use in over 600 law enforcement agencies.

Between the lines: In the weeks since the initial Times report, the debate over Clearview, and face recognition technology more broadly, has continued and intensified.

  • Proponents cite the crimes, including child sexual abuse, that are being prevented or thwarted by using the technology.
  • Opponents warn of the inaccuracy of current technology, especially among women and people of color, and highlight the company's international ambitions as reason for additional worry. Critics argue that for every legitimate benefit, there are even scarier uses, such as when the technology finds its way into the hands of authoritarian regimes — or stalkers.

What they're saying:

  • CEO Hoan Ton-That says his company has the right to use photos published on the internet, making a case similar to the one Google and other search engines made years ago to justify their businesses. "The way we have built our system is to only take publicly available information and index it that way," he said in a CBS This Morning interview.
  • ACLU Northern California's Matt Cagle: "Clearview AI built its facial recognition system by exploiting your 'publicly available' social media profile photos. They were able to do this because most social media companies make profile photos public by default and deprive users of the option to hide them."

Our thought bubble: We clearly need a conversation about the rules and laws that should govern use of facial recognition. We also need one on what rights people should have over their own likenesses.

  • That Clearview's tech could be used so widely with so little notice is one concern. Another is that we might not have much recourse even now, after its exposure.

Go deeper: Kashmir Hill is expected to discuss the story, its origins and the fallout on today's episode of the Times podcast, "The Daily."

2. Hawley seeks overhaul of the Federal Trade Commission

Sen. Josh Hawley, (R-Mo.). Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

GOP Sen. Josh Hawley's frustration with the FTC's policing of the tech industry has prompted him to propose taking the more-than-100-year-old agency off of merger reviews and turning what remains into a wing of the Justice Department, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

The big picture: The FTC has been under fire from both Republicans and Democrats calling for tougher action on Big Tech. Hawley's pitch is to hand the agency's competition authority to the Justice Department's antitrust division so that a reimagined FTC could hone its focus on privacy and other digital issues.

Yes, but: Relocating the agency, created in 1914, to a branch of the Justice Department is a tall order, and it's unclear if Hawley's idea will gain any support.

Details: Hawley says his plan would make the FTC directly accountable to the Justice Department while giving it special authority to address digital markets.

  • Rather than a five-member commission, the FTC would be run by a Senate-confirmed director who would report to the DOJ's associate attorney general.
  • The DOJ's antitrust division would take over review of any mergers and acquisitions that might otherwise fall to the FTC, ending the overlapping jurisdiction that has been a source of congressional complaints.
  • The proposal instead calls for the creation of a "digital markets research section" within the FTC that would conduct studies of the marketplace and bolster DOJ litigation.
  • To increase enforcement, the proposal would give the FTC authority to limit the amount of data firms can collect, enforce new data portability and interoperability requirements, and impose civil penalties for first-time violations of those new rules.

What they're saying: "The FTC isn't working," Hawley said in a statement. "It wastes time in turf wars with the DOJ, nobody is accountable for decisions, and it lacks the 'teeth' to get after Big Tech's rampant abuses. Congress needs to do something about it."

What it doesn't do: For his proposal, Hawley rejected the idea of creating a brand new agency to police tech companies, saying his overhaul of the FTC is the better answer.

What's next: Legislation based on the proposal will come in short order, according to a Hawley aide.

3. More companies skip Mobile World Congress

The list of companies skipping Mobile World Congress this year continues to grow, a trend that may accelerate now that Ericsson has decided to take a pass. Amazon, LG, Nvidia and Sony have also said they won't be attending due to coronavirus concerns.

Why it matters: The best thing about Mobile World Congress is the fact that it brings together the biggest names in the wireless industry. But this year, some of those big names won't be going to Barcelona.

Driving the news:

  • LG was the first big name to announce it was skipping the event, followed by Ericsson. ZTE has also canceled a planned Barcelona press conference.
  • Since then, Nvidia and Amazon have pulled out.
  • GSMA, the show's organizer, has announced a number of new health precautions. Over the weekend, the association said those from the most affected Chinese province would not be able to attend, and attendees who have been in China will need to demonstrate proof they have been outside of China for at least 14 days prior to the event.

My thought bubble: Ericsson typically hosts one of the biggest booths at the show and is a central player in the mobile industry. By pulling out, Ericsson has given other companies cover to do the same, and actually puts the pressure on companies to justify why they are sending their employees.

Go deeper: All the ways that the coronavirus is affecting the tech industry (The Verge)

4. Samsung uses Oscar commercial to confirm new foldable

Photo: Ina Fried/Axios

Samsung just couldn't wait until Tuesday's Unpacked event to show off its new foldable smartphone. The company used a commercial during the Oscars to tease the new phone, which has already been widely leaked.

The big picture: Foldables, led by the original Galaxy Fold and Motorola's Razr, are the current novelty of the smartphone market.

While the new foldable, expected to be called the Galaxy Z Flip, is likely to be the toast of the Tuesday event, the mainstay is the next generation of the Galaxy S family, which has also widely leaked, and is expected to be dubbed the Galaxy S20.

  • Also over the weekend, T.M. Roh, Samsung's new head of mobile communications, published a blog post touting, among other things, the company's work with Google and Microsoft.
5. Take Note

On Tap

Trading Places

  • Technical program manager Bruce Hahne publicly resigned from Google, citing several ethical issues with the company, including its treatment of LGBTQ staff, sales to the oil and gas industry and the increased use of Google technology by militaries.


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Ina Fried