Air Force Taps Clearview AI to Research Face-Identifying A.R. Glasses

The U.S. Air Force is looking into keeping its airfields safer with help from the facial recognition start-up Clearview AI.

The Air Force Research Laboratory awarded Clearview $49,847 to research augmented reality glasses that could scan faces to help with security on bases.

Bryan Ripple, a spokesman for the lab, described the work as a three-month study to figure out the “scientific and technical merit and feasibility” of using such glasses for face recognition.

“No glasses or units are being delivered under this contract,” Mr. Ripple said on Thursday.

In other words, the lab is paying for the glasses to be developed, but it isn’t buying them yet. Mr. Ripple provided “a one-page overview from the company” titled, “Clearview AI: Augmented Reality Glasses to Secure Bases and Flightlines.” The flier said the product “saves lives,” “saves time” and “improves health” by increasing social distancing and keeping officers’ hands free to grab their weapons.

New York-based Clearview AI has been the target of international investigations and lawsuits because it scraped billions of photos from the public internet to build a facial recognition tool used by law enforcement. Hundreds of federal agencies and local police departments have employed Clearview’s technology.

The company describes its software as ideal for investigations that take place after a crime and not for surveillance, but it has experimented with real-time facial recognition.

In January 2020, a technologist at The New York Times found code in the company’s app that showed it could be paired with augmented reality glasses. At the time, Hoan Ton-That, the chief executive of Clearview AI, acknowledged designing a prototype but said the company had no plans to release it.

“We continually research and develop new technologies, processes and platforms to meet current and future security challenges, and look forward to any opportunities that would bring us together with the Air Force in that realm,” Mr. Ton-That said in a statement after the contract became public. “Once realized, we believe this technology will be an excellent fit for numerous security situations.”

Last month, Mr. Ton-That said in a public letter that his company would not use its technology “in a real-time way,” but outfitting glasses with the technology to recognize faces seems to fill that bill.

In a phone call, Mr. Ton-That said that Clearview’s database of 10 billion photos “won’t be used for any real-time surveillance” and that any augmented reality glasses would rely instead on “limited data sets — for example, outstanding warrants, missing children or persons of interest.”

The Air Force contract was signed in November but became public only on Thursday. It was first highlighted on Twitter by Jack Poulson, the executive director of Tech Inquiry, a nonprofit that monitors government procurement of surveillance technology.

In December 2019, the Air Force awarded Clearview AI $50,000 for research and development. BuzzFeed News previously reported that the Air Force was one of many divisions within federal agencies that had performed trials with the company’s facial recognition software.

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