|Jessica Medeiros Garrison and Luther Strange|
Birmingham-based political operative Jessica Medeiros Garrison, one-time campaign manager and mistress to former Alabama attorney general Luther Strange, appears as the chief customer contact for a shadowy facial-recognition company that has the potential to radically alter any notion of privacy in the United States, according to a report at The New York Times.
The Times article, written by Kashmir Hill and published on Friday (1/18/20), is titled "The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It: A little-known start-up helps law enforcement match photos of unknown people to their online images — and 'might lead to a dystopian future'."
That unsettling headline points to Clearview AI, a tiny company founded by an Australian technophile named Hoan Ton-That. Reports The Times:
Until recently, Hoan Ton-That’s greatest hits included an obscure iPhone game and an app that let people put Donald Trump’s distinctive yellow hair on their own photos.
Then Mr. Ton-That — an Australian techie and onetime model — did something momentous: He invented a tool that could end your ability to walk down the street anonymously, and provided it to hundreds of law enforcement agencies, ranging from local cops in Florida to the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security.
His tiny company, Clearview AI, devised a groundbreaking facial recognition app. You take a picture of a person, upload it and get to see public photos of that person, along with links to where those photos appeared. The system — whose backbone is a database of more than three billion images that Clearview claims to have scraped from Facebook, YouTube, Venmo and millions of other websites — goes far beyond anything ever constructed by the United States government or Silicon Valley giants.
Federal and state law enforcement officers said that while they had only limited knowledge of how Clearview works and who is behind it, they had used its app to help solve shoplifting, identity theft, credit card fraud, murder and child sexual exploitation cases.
Helping to solve crimes seems like a noble use of technology, but what about the ramifications of Clearview? Why is the company so reluctant to provide information about who it is, what it does, and who it works with?
Until now, technology that readily identifies everyone based on his or her face has been taboo because of its radical erosion of privacy. Tech companies capable of releasing such a tool have refrained from doing so; in 2011, Google’s chairman at the time said it was the one technology the company had held back because it could be used “in a very bad way.” Some large cities, including San Francisco, have barred police from using facial recognition technology.
But without public scrutiny, more than 600 law enforcement agencies have started using Clearview in the past year, according to the company, which declined to provide a list. The computer code underlying its app, analyzed by The New York Times, includes programming language to pair it with augmented-reality glasses; users would potentially be able to identify every person they saw. The tool could identify activists at a protest or an attractive stranger on the subway, revealing not just their names but where they lived, what they did and whom they knew.
And it’s not just law enforcement: Clearview has also licensed the app to at least a handful of companies for security purposes.
“The weaponization possibilities of this are endless,” said Eric Goldman, co-director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University. “Imagine a rogue law enforcement officer who wants to stalk potential romantic partners, or a foreign government using this to dig up secrets about people to blackmail them or throw them in jail.”
Clearview has shrouded itself in secrecy, avoiding debate about its boundary-pushing technology. When I began looking into the company in November, its website was a bare page showing a nonexistent Manhattan address as its place of business. The company’s one employee listed on LinkedIn, a sales manager named “John Good,” turned out to be Mr. Ton-That, using a fake name. For a month, people affiliated with the company would not return my emails or phone calls.
Where do Alabama and Jessica Medeiros Garrison enter the picture? Consider this paragraph from The Times' report:
The company’s main contact for customers was Jessica Medeiros Garrison, who managed Luther Strange’s Republican campaign for Alabama attorney general. Brandon Fricke, an N.F.L. agent engaged to the Fox Nation host Tomi Lahren, said in a financial disclosure report during a congressional campaign in California that he was a “growth consultant” for the company. (Clearview said that it was a brief, unpaid role, and that the company had enlisted Democrats to help market its product as well.)
How did Garrison become involved? The answer remains unclear, but the following information from The Times report might help explain it:
Clearview also hired Paul D. Clement, a United States solicitor general under President George W. Bush, to assuage concerns about the app’s legality.
In an August memo that Clearview provided to potential customers, including the Atlanta Police Department and the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, Mr. Clement said law enforcement agencies “do not violate the federal Constitution or relevant existing state biometric and privacy laws when using Clearview for its intended purpose.”
Mr. Clement, now a partner at Kirkland and Ellis, wrote that the authorities don’t have to tell defendants that they were identified via Clearview, as long as it isn’t the sole basis for getting a warrant to arrest them. Mr. Clement did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Where does this winding path lead? Well, Kirkland Ellis is the D.C.-based law firm that produced Trump attorney general William Barr. It also produced Edmund LaCour, Alabama's current solicitor general and a former law clerk to Birmingham-based U.S. Circuit Judge Bill Pryor. Jessica Medeiros Garrison once worked for Bill Pryor. For good measure Kirkland Ellis is the former home to Jennifer Bandy-Dickey, who has appeared on our blog before, during our reporting on Bill Pryor's ties to 1990s gay pornography. From an April 2019 post:
Speaking of the Kirkland Ellis "legal mafia," one of its members played a role in our Legal Schnauzer story. That came when Judge Bill Pryor issued a press statement about our reports on his gay-porn activities in the 1990s at badpuppy.com. Pryor, of course, did not address the press himself, and he certainly did not take questions. He turned the press-agent role over to one of his former law clerks, Jennifer Bandy -- and she just happened to work for . . . Kirkland Ellis. From our report about Ms. Bandy's statement:
How has Pryor responded to all of this? In a dumbfoundingly ignorant way, by apparently aligning himself with three Alabama lawyers who have dubious records on mattes of ethics. Who forms this unholy alliance? We are talking about Birmingham-based lawyer Bill Baxley, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, and Strange's mistress/former campaign manager Jessica Medeiros Garrison.
What signs point to Pryor joining hands with Baxley, Strange, and Garrison? Well, let's consider Pryor's response late last week when D.C.-based lawyer/journalist Andrew Kreig contacted the judge for comment about the gay porn story. Our understanding is that Kreig plans to use Pryor's response in an upcoming article at the Justice-Integrity Project.
Did Pryor grant Kreig an interview? No, he brushed off that possibility, just as he did when I submitted multiple interview requests before writing the post that broke the gay porn story. Did Pryor respond directly to Kreig with a comment. No, the judge assigned that task to Jennifer Bandy, one of his former law clerks who now works for the Washington, D.C., law firm of Kirkland Ellis. . . .
According to press reports, Bandy went on to become a member of the "beachhead" transition team for the Trump administration. Her name now apparently is Jennifer Bandy-Dickey, and she took a "counsel" position with the Department of Justice on May 28, 2017.
All of this raises questions about Bill Pryor: If he is connected to a company that promotes the interests of law enforcement, how can Pryor serve as an impartial arbiter cases that involve cops before the U.S. 11th Circuit (Alabama, Georgia, Florida). For that matter, if Pryor is promoting the career of Jessica Medeiros Garrison, how can he or his colleagues serve as impartial arbiters on a case where she is a party? (Full disclosure: My wife and I have filed two civil actions -- "The House Case" and "The Jail Case" -- with both starting in the Northern District of Alabama and going to the 11th Circuit.)
Those hardly are the only questions related to Clearview AI. Consider this from The Times:
The company said, its tool finds matches up to 75 percent of the time. But it is unclear how often the tool delivers false matches, because it has not been tested by an independent party such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal agency that rates the performance of facial recognition algorithms.
“We have no data to suggest this tool is accurate,” said Clare Garvie, a researcher at Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology, who has studied the government’s use of facial recognition. “The larger the database, the larger the risk of misidentification because of the doppelgänger effect. They’re talking about a massive database of random people they’ve found on the internet.”