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The Modern Public Square: The Free Flow of Information in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

This speech was given at the Attorney General Alliance on a panel, The Modern Public Square: Privacy & Artificial Intelligence, on June 14, 2022.

Good morning. My name is Hoan Ton-That. I am the Co-Founder and CEO of Clearview AI. Clearview AI is U.S. technology company founded in 2019. The backbone of our technology is an AI/Machine Learning driven algorithm that has been scored by the National Institute of Standards and Technology – NIST – as the most accurate algorithm for recognizing faces in the country and second most accurate in the world. Our facial recognition technology is used by law enforcement and government agencies to help solve crimes, such as human trafficking, crimes of violence and serious property crimes and child abuse. Our technology was used to help identify the people who stormed the Capitol on January 6th. It is being used right now by government agencies in Ukraine to help secure checkpoints, identify the deceased victims of war, and identify war criminals and has been instrumental in helping Ukraine defend its homeland against the Russian invasion.

What makes Clearview AI unique is that it’s the only facial recognition technology that searches public images that have been posted by people on the public internet – now amounting to more than 20 billion in total. Think of it like a “Google for Faces”. Clearview AI doesn’t search for or retrieve private information, like that from your camera roll, or private social media -- but only publicly available information you would see by using Google or any other search engines. Instead of searching by keywords, instead you search with a photo of a face.

I would like everyone to read this criticism of public access to photographic information, and ask you all to guess who said it, and when it was said. This statement encompasses much of the discussion, opinion, and fear expressed today by many regarding privacy and technology.

“Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that ‘what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.’

It sounds like I pulled it right off a recent news article or privacy organization’s website. But the statement is a quote from an article titled “The Right to Privacy” published in the Harvard Law Review, in 1890. It was around that time that the Kodak Brownie box camera was first released and the words ‘Kodak fiends’ were used to describe the camera’s user by those fearful of the new technology. Prior to that product, the public was accustomed to photography being limited to studios and well-orchestrated public events.

After the invention of the Kodak Brownie box camera – anyone could take a photograph of someone in public – with or without their consent. One of the article’s authors later became a U.S. Supreme Court justice and the work is credited with helping shape some of today’s law on the commercial use of people’s images.

This 19th century quote highlights that today’s concerns about privacy and new technology are not new concerns, and discourse regarding privacy and photographs and the public square have been debated for more than one hundred years in this country. And despite the concerns and fears at the time, the ‘Kodak fiends’ and the personal camera did not destroy the fabric of the country. In fact, most of you probably never heard of that phrase before today. So, an issue so powerful and impactful to many American people at that moment in time is now mostly forgotten or completely unknown.

Technological advances in the last twenty years have been phenomenal. And one of the most beneficial aspects of that advancement has been the virtual expansion of the public square. The information superhighway has made our world more connected. We don’t need a ship or an airplane to cross the oceans and explore other continents. The internet gets us there. It has opened windows into other cultures and other regions of the world that most humans would never have the opportunity to see, much less engage with and experience. The public square in Kyiv, Ukraine, the public square in Sydney, Australia, and public square in Sun Valley, Idaho, are all connected. And those three squares are connected to thousands of others in hundreds of countries around the world. Anyone, anywhere in the world with an internet connection can access trillions of pieces of information in seconds. They can access your public data and you can access theirs.

Despite this global expansion of information and access to it, the concept and application of public versus private really hasn’t changed for us as Americans. Our Constitutional and legal concepts of the public square work equally as well in the virtual world as they do in the physical one.

In the physical world, we understand as Americans that our expected right of privacy is lessened when we venture into public spaces. Technology itself is not new. We’ve lived for years with government cameras on streets and highways. We’ve lived for years with private business cameras recording our movements near and inside those establishments. We’ve lived for years with a free press capturing news footage in public, with professional and amateur photographers snapping away at public events, with cameras highlighting the crowd at sporting events. In the public square, we are used to having our photograph taken intentionally and unintentionally. And if someone doesn’t want that kind of public exposure, they can limit their public footprint by where they choose to go and what they choose to do in public.

The virtual public square is no different. The internet gives anyone the ability to post their own photographs and choose where and to whom those photographs are available. If they chose to make them publicly available, then anyone in the virtual public square can see them – they can screenshot them - they can download them - they can copy them - they can even alter them. Just like the physical public square, if someone wants to limit their virtual footprint, they can limit where they go and what they do in both the physical public space and in the virtual one.

Both the physical and virtual worlds also have a private side. If law enforcement shows up at your house and demands to look at all your home movies and personal photographs, you have every right to deny them access and take legal action against them if they violate a Constitutionally protected aspect of your privacy. The virtual public square is no different. There is information and data that people choose to keep private. Anyone can contract with a provider or institution to keep our data secure from others and from the government. Anyone can protect that information behind passwords and firewalls. No one on the internet can get to that data without violating a criminal law. People are able to set our Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media profiles to not show in search engine results, by simply choosing to in the settings applicable to their data.

The legal regime that applies to all of this is still developing, with the goal of helping people keep private information they have always kept private, or which they have only given to a business for limited uses they have authorized, and not authorized its provision to the general public. A growing array of laws are in place to implement these concepts. For example the CCPA or California Consumer Privacy Act, which went into effect in 2020 and requires companies to disclose what personal data they collect, why they collect it, and gives consumers the right to know what personal information is being collected about them. Many other states in the USA have passed, or are considering similar privacy laws.

These privacy laws are important to implement, as consumers rightfully should have knowledge about what private data a company collects, and how and what it is used for. Sensitive information such as health information, social security numbers, and financial institution account information should always be protected with the highest degree of cybersecurity and privacy protection. However, these privacy laws should also take into consideration the value of public information, and how it’s currently being used every day by people throughout the world to access information with search engines, and the public good that is created for academic researchers, journalists, public safety, commerce, and so much of our modern lives. The free flow of public information is key to our democracy.

Imagine a world where you can’t do a basic search using an Internet search engine to research information that is public using a search term. Or an academic researcher isn’t allowed to gather information for the purpose of groundbreaking research. Or a journalist, unable to publish a groundbreaking story. Or a law enforcement officer, unable to locate a missing child. Privacy regulation must protect these use cases.

The Internet is part of the public commons, and its uses are as varied as the needs of every person who in the world who is connected to it. As we work to protect privacy, we also need to protect the ability of people to use public information. Getting that balance right will be essential as the world continues to develop its data protection laws, to protect the public good as well as the interest of people in keeping truly private information private.



Founder & CEO of Clearview AI

A self taught engineer, Hoan Ton-That is of Vietnamese and Australian heritage. His father's family descended from the Royal Family of Vietnam. As a student, Hoan was ranked #1 solo competitor in Australia’s Informatics Olympiad. He was ranked #2 guitarist under age 16 in Australia’s National Eisteddfod Music Competition. At the age of 19, Hoan moved from Australia to San Francisco to focus on his career in technology. He created over twenty iPhone and Facebook applications with over 10 million installations, some of which ranked in the App Store’s Top 10. Hoan moved to New York City in 2016. In 2017, he co-founded Clearview AI and focused his energy on developing the core technology, raising capital, and building the team and product.


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