Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Shadowy facial-recognition company, tied to Alabama GOP operative Jessica Medeiros Garrison, is aligned with political figures on the right-wing fringe

Chuck Johnson and Hoan Ton-That make the "OK" sign associated with white power

A controversial facial-recognition company has ties to right-wing politics, including Team Trump, according to a report at BuzzFeed News. Clearview AI, which has ties to Alabama via Mountain Brook-based GOP operative Jessica Medeiros Garrison, came to national attention via an investigative report in January by Kashmir Hill, of The New York Times. Garrison, it turns out, is not the only Clearview insider to go undergound on social media since the Times article was published; other figures involved with Clearview have done the same thing.

How did the ties to right-wing politics take root? They started with company founder Hoan Ton-That, reports BuzzFeed News:

Originally known as Smartcheckr, Clearview was the result of an unlikely partnership between Ton-That, a small-time hacker turned serial app developer, and Richard Schwartz, a former adviser to then–New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. Ton-That told the Times that they met at a 2016 event at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, after which they decided to build a facial recognition company.

Jessica Medeiros Garrison at gambling expo in Las Vegas
While Ton-That has erased much of his online persona from that time period, old web accounts and posts uncovered by BuzzFeed News show that the 31-year-old developer was interested in far-right politics. In a partial archive of his Twitter account from early 2017, Ton-That wondered why all big US cities were liberal, while retweeting a mix of Breitbart writers, venture capitalists, and right-wing personalities.

“In today's world, the ability to handle a public shaming / witch hunt is going to be a very important skill,” he tweeted in January 2017.

 Ton-That appears to associate with white nationalists and right-wing extremists:

Those interactions didn’t just happen online. In June 2016, Mike Cernovich, a pro-Trump personality on Twitter who propagated the Pizzagate conspiracy, posted a photo of Ton-That at a meal with far-right provocateur Chuck Johnson with both of them making the OK sign with their hands, a gesture that has since become favored by right-wing trolls.

“I was only making the Okay sign in the photo as in 'all okay,'” Ton-That said in an email. "It was completely innocuous and should not be construed as anything more than that.

"I am of Asian decent [sic] and do not hold any discriminatory views towards any group or individual," he added. "I am devoting my professional life to creating a tool to help law enforcement solve heinous crimes and protect victims. It would be absurd and unfair for anyone to distort my views and values based on old photos of any sort.”

What about Clearview's ties to Trump World? BuzzFeed provides details, including signs the company plans to offer services in "extreme opposition research" :

By the election, Ton-That was on the Trump train, attending an election night event where he was photographed with Johnson and his former business partner Pax Dickinson.

The following February, Smartcheckr LLC was registered in New York, with Ton-That telling the Times that he developed the image-scraping tools while Schwartz covered the operating costs. By August that year, they registered Clearview AI in Delaware, according to incorporation documents.

While there’s little left online about Smartcheckr, BuzzFeed News obtained and confirmed a document, first reported by the Times, in which the company claimed it could provide voter ad microtargeting and “extreme opposition research” to Paul Nehlen, a white nationalist who was running on an extremist platform to fill the Wisconsin congressional seat of the departing speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.

A Smartcheckr contractor, Douglass Mackey, pitched the services to Nehlen. Mackey later became known for running the racist and highly influential Trump-boosting Twitter account Ricky Vaughn. Described by HuffPost as “Trump’s most influential white nationalist troll,” Mackey built a following of tens of thousands of users with a mix of far-right propaganda, racist tropes, and anti-Semitic cartoons. MIT’s Media Lab ranked Vaughn, who used multiple accounts to dodge several bans, as one of the top 150 influencers of the 2016 presidential election — ahead of NBC News and the Drudge Report.

“An unauthorized proposal was sent to Mr. Nehlen,” Ton-That said. “We did not seek this work. Moreover, the technology described in the proposal did not even exist.”

Those tied to Clearview seem to have a twisted relationship with any notion of privacy:

Ironically for a company that seeks to erode privacy, many key figures at Clearview have attempted to lower their public profiles. Some began to do so long before the attention from the press.

Since Ton-That and Schwartz started Clearview, their social media and internet presences have been scrubbed. Ton-That deleted his Twitter and Instagram accounts, while Schwartz's LinkedIn profile vanished and his past with Smartcheckr has been obscured across the web.

When asked about this, Ton-That said in an email, "Regarding myself and others at the company, some choose not to maintain social media accounts because they are time consuming."

A search for Schwartz’s name plus "Smartcheckr" leads to results for seemingly nonsensical webpages, which include embedded YouTube videos from an account named “Seo Sgr” — results indicative of the use of a reputation management service to affect search results. BuzzFeed News also found a now-deleted press release referencing Schwartz and Smartcheckr, which linked to a New York Times obituary for a different Richard Schwartz. The company declined to comment on the fake webpages and whether Schwartz had hired someone to game search engine results.

On Monday, a BuzzFeed News reporter called a number associated with Schwartz after locating his contact information in an email to a New Jersey police department obtained in a public records request. A man picked up, denied he was Richard Schwartz, and hung up. BuzzFeed News called back again and got a voicemail recording that stated the number belonged to Schwartz.

Clearview employee Marko Jukic, who signed off on various emails to police departments around the country, also appears to have deleted various social media accounts, while the Facebook profile of customer representative Jessica Medeiros Garrison disappeared from public view following the Times’ story.

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