An anonymous tip-off, a pregnant reporter and a secretive startup that wanted to stay hidden.

In 2019, New York Times reporter and author of 'Your Face Belongs to Us: The Secretive Start Up Dismantling Your Privacy' Kashmir Hill received a tip-off from an unnamed source about a mysterious company called Clearview AI.

The company claimed that, with a single image of someone's face, it could accurately identify almost anyone with more than 98 per cent accuracy – a frightening prospect, if true, with far-reaching implications for individuals' privacy.

Hill, then six months pregnant, embarked on an investigation to find out more about the elusive company – only to come up against constant and curious dead-ends.

Like something from a Hollywood movie, the company simply... didn't seem to exist. 

But the deeper Hill went in her investigation, the more shocking the story became – and the closer a dystopian future devoid of privacy seemed.

The following is an edited extract from 'Your Face Belongs to Us: The Secretive Start Up Dismantling Your Privacy, in which Hill documents her journey to find out more about the company and the implications of unchecked facial recognition apps.


The company's online presence was limited to a simple blue website with a Pac-Man-esque logo – the C chomping down on the V – and the tagline “Artificial Intelligence for a better world.” There wasn’t much else there, just a form to “request access” (which I filled out and sent to no avail) and an address in New York City.


A search of LinkedIn, the professional networking site where tech employees can be relied on to brag about their jobs, came up empty save for a single person named John Good. Though he looked middle-aged in his profile photo, he had only one job on his résumé: “sales manager at Clearview AI.” Most professionals on LinkedIn are connected to hundreds of people; this guy was connected to two. Generic name. Skimpy résumé. Almost no network. Was this even a real person?

I sent Mr. Good a message but never got a response.

So I decided to go door knocking. I mapped the address from the company’s website and discovered that it was in midtown Manhattan, just two blocks away from the New York Times building. On a cold, gray afternoon, I walked there, slowly, because I was in the stage of the pregnancy where walking too fast gave me Braxton-Hicks contractions.

When I arrived at the point on the sidewalk where Google Maps directed me, the mystery deepened. The building where Clearview was supposedly headquartered did not exist.

The company’s listed address was 145 West Forty-first Street. There was a delivery dock at 143 West Forty-first Street and next to it on the corner of Broadway, where 145 should have been, an outpost of the co-working giant WeWork—but its address was 1460 Broadway. Thinking that Clearview must be renting a WeWork office, I popped my head in and asked the receptionist, who said there was no such company there.


It was like something out of Harry Potter. Was there a magic door I was missing?

I reached out to Clearview’s lawyer, Paul Clement, to see if he’d actually written the legal memo for this company with one fake employee working out of a nonexistent building. Despite repeated calls and emails, I got no response.

Business filings revealed that the company had incorporated in Delaware in 2018 using an address on the Upper West Side. I bundled up and headed to the subway. The train, a local on the C line, was not crowded, and my anticipation grew with each stop. When I got off, a little past the Natural History Museum, I discovered that the address was on an unusually quiet street, next to the castlelike Dakota Apartments building. Eager to knock on an actual door that might unravel the mystery, I couldn’t help but speed my steps, which made the muscles across my belly clench in protest.

The building had an Art Deco exterior, with a revolving glass door, and I could see individual balconies on the floors above that gave a distinct residential impression. The lounge looked homey with a surprising number of couches and a Christmas tree. A uniformed doorman greeted me at the entrance and asked whom I was there to see.

“Clearview AI in Suite 23-S,” I said.

He looked at me quizzically. “There are no businesses here,” he said. “That’s someone’s home.”


He wouldn’t let me up. Yet another dead end.


With the help of a colleague, I recruited a detective based in Texas who was willing to assist with the investigation, as long as I didn’t reveal his name. He went to Clearview’s website and requested access.

Unlike me, he got a response within half an hour with instructions on how to create an account for his free trial. All he needed was a police department email address. He ran a few photos of criminal suspects whose identities he already knew, and Clearview nailed them all, linking to photos of the correct people on the web.

He ran his own image through the app. He had purposefully kept photos of himself off the internet for years, so he was shocked when he got a hit: a photo of him in uniform, his face tiny and out of focus. It was cropped from a larger photo, for which there was a link that took him to Twitter. A year earlier, someone had tweeted a photo from a Pride Festival. The Texas investigator had been on patrol at the event, and he appeared in the background of someone else’s photo. When he zoomed in, his name badge was legible. He was shocked that a face-searching algorithm this powerful existed. He could see that it would be a godsend to some types of law enforcement, but it had horrible implications for undercover officers if the technology became publicly available.

I told him that I hadn’t been able to get a demo yet and that another officer had run my photo and gotten no results. He ran my photo again and confirmed that there were no matches.


Minutes later, his phone rang. It was a number he didn’t recognise, with a Virginia area code. He picked up.

“Hello. This is Marko with Clearview AI tech support,” said the voice on the other end of the call. “We have some questions. Why are you uploading a New York Times reporter’s photo?”

“I did?” the officer responded cagily.

“Yes, you ran this Kashmir Hill lady from The New York Times,” said Marko. “Do you know her?”

“I’m in Texas,” the officer replied. “How would I know her?”

The company representative said it was “a policy violation” to run photos of reporters in the app and deactivated the officer’s account. The officer was taken aback, creeped out that his use of the app was that closely monitored. He called immediately to tell me what had happened.

A chill ran through me. It was a shocking demonstration of just how much power this mysterious company wielded. They could not only see who law enforcement was looking for, they could block the results. They controlled who could be found. I suddenly understood why the earlier detectives had gone cold on me.

Though Clearview was doing everything in its power to stay hidden, it was using its technology to spy on me. What else was it capable of?


Your Face Belongs to Us: The Secretive Start Up Dismantling Your Privacy, by Kashmir Hill, published by SImon & Schuster, $34.99 (AU) and $38.99 (NZ).

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