Your Face Belongs to Us

A Secretive Startup's Quest to End Privacy as We Know It

About the Book

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • The story of a small AI company that gave facial recognition to law enforcement, billionaires, and businesses, threatening to end privacy as we know it

“The dystopian future portrayed in some science-fiction movies is already upon us. Kashmir Hill’s fascinating book brings home the scary implications of this new reality.”—John Carreyrou, author of Bad Blood

A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, Wired

Winner of the
Inc. Non-Obvious Book Award • Longlisted for the Financial Times and Schroders Business Book of the Year Award


New York Times tech reporter Kashmir Hill was skeptical when she got a tip about a mysterious app called Clearview AI that claimed it could, with 99 percent accuracy, identify anyone based on just one snapshot of their face. The app could supposedly scan a face and, in just seconds, surface every detail of a person’s online life: their name, social media profiles, friends and family members, home address, and photos that they might not have even known existed. If it was everything it claimed to be, it would be the ultimate surveillance tool, and it would open the door to everything from stalking to totalitarian state control. Could it be true?

In this riveting account, Hill tracks the improbable rise of Clearview AI, helmed by Hoan Ton-That, an Australian computer engineer, and Richard Schwartz, a former Rudy Giuliani advisor, and its astounding collection of billions of faces from the internet. The company was boosted by a cast of controversial characters, including conservative provocateur Charles C. Johnson and billionaire Donald Trump backer Peter Thiel—who all seemed eager to release this society-altering technology on the public. Google and Facebook decided that a tool to identify strangers was too radical to release, but Clearview forged ahead, sharing the app with private investors, pitching it to businesses, and offering it to thousands of law enforcement agencies around the world.
      
Facial recognition technology has been quietly growing more powerful for decades. This technology has already been used in wrongful arrests in the United States. Unregulated, it could expand the reach of policing, as it has in China and Russia, to a terrifying, dystopian level.
     
Your Face Belongs to Us
is a gripping true story about the rise of a technological superpower and an urgent warning that, in the absence of vigilance and government regulation, Clearview AI is one of many new technologies that challenge what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once called “the right to be let alone.”
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Praise for Your Face Belongs to Us

“As I read Your Face Belongs to Us, it dawned on me that the dystopian future portrayed in some science-fiction movies is already upon us. Whether you like it or not, your face has already been scraped from the internet, stored in a giant database, and made available to law enforcement agencies, private corporations, and authoritarian governments to track and surveil you. Kashmir Hill’s fascinating book brings home the scary implications of this new reality.”—John Carreyrou, author of Bad Blood

“Kashmir Hill all but invented the tech dystopia beat, and no one is a more exuberant and enjoyable guide to the dark corners of our possible future than she is. Reaching deep into the past to paint a terrifying portrait of our future, Hill’s thorough, awe-inspiring reporting and compelling storytelling paint a fascinating tale of tech’s next chapter. This is the most fun you can have reading a real-life nightmare.”—Garrett Graff, author of The Only Plane in the Sky
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Excerpt

Your Face Belongs to Us

Chapter 1

A Strange Kind of Love


In the summer of 2016, in an arena in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, Donald Trump, a real estate mogul who had become famous hosting a reality TV show called The Apprentice, was being anointed as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate. Trump had no government experience, no filter, and no tolerance for political correctness, but his famous name, right-wing populist views, and uncanny ability to exploit his opponents’ weaknesses made him a powerful candidate. It was going to be the strangest political convention in American history, and Hoan Ton-That did not want to miss it.

Ton-That, twenty-eight, did not look, at first glance, like a Trump supporter. Half Vietnamese and half Australian, he was tall—six feet, one inch—with long, silky black hair and androgynous good looks. He dressed flamboyantly in paisley print shirts and suits in a rainbow of colors made bespoke in Vietnam, where, his father told him, his ancestors had once been royalty.

Ton-That had always followed his curiosity no matter where it had taken him. As a kid, growing up in Melbourne, Australia, he had tried to figure out electricity, plugging an extension cord into itself in the hope that the current would race around in a circle inside. Once, after seeing someone steal a woman’s purse, he walked up to the thief and asked why he’d done it. The guy pushed him over and ran away. When Ton-That’s dad brought a computer home in the early 1990s, Ton-That became obsessed with it, wanting to take it apart, put it back together, play games on it, and type commands into it. Because his growth spurt came late, Ton-That was “little Hoan” to his classmates, and bullies targeted him, particularly those who didn’t like the growing Asian demographic in Australia. Ton-That had close friends with whom he played guitar, soccer, and cricket, but he felt like an outsider at school.

When he was fourteen, he taught himself to code, relying on free teaching materials and video lectures that MIT posted online. Sometimes he would skip school, tape a “Do Not Disturb” sign on his bedroom door, and spend the day with virtual programming professors. His mother was perplexed by his love of computers, pushing him to pursue a musical career instead after he placed second in a national competition for his guitar playing. “Very often, you’d find him on the computer and the guitar at the same time,” his father, Quynh-Du Ton-That, said. “Back and forth between the keyboard and the guitar.”

When it came time for college in Canberra, Ton-That chose a computer engineering program, but he was bored out of his mind by professors teaching a mainstream programming language called Java. Ton-That was into “computer snob languages,” such as Lisp and Haskell, but those were about as likely to get him a job as studying Latin or ancient Greek. Instead of doing schoolwork, he created a dating app for fellow students called Touchfelt and spent a lot of time on a new online message forum, eventually called Hacker News, which catered to a subculture of people obsessed with technology and startups. When a California investor named Naval Ravikant put up a post there saying he was investing in social media startups, Ton-That reached out to him.

He told Ravikant about his entrepreneurial ambitions and the lack of appetite for such endeavors in Australia. Ravikant told him he should come to San Francisco. So at just nineteen years old, Ton-That moved there, drawn halfway around the world by the siren song of Silicon Valley.

Ravikant picked up the jet-lagged Ton-That at the airport, found him a friend’s couch to sleep on, and talked his ear off about the booming Facebook economy. The social network had just opened its platform to outside developers. For the first time, anyone could build an app for Facebook’s then 20 million users, and there was a plethora of vacuous offerings. The epitome of those would be FarmVille, a game that let Facebook users harvest virtual crops and raise digital livestock. When the company behind FarmVille went public, it revealed an annual profit of $91 million on $600 million in revenue, thanks to ads and people paying real money to buy digital cows.

“It’s the craziest thing ever,” Ravikant told Ton-That. “These apps have forty thousand new users a day.”

Ton-That couch surfed for at least three months because he didn’t have the credit history needed to rent an apartment, but the San Francisco Bay area, with its eclectic collection of entrepreneurs, musicians, and artists, was otherwise a good fit for him. He loved being in the heart of the tech world, meeting either startup founders or those who worked for them. He became friends with early employees at Twitter, Square, Airbnb, and Uber. “You see a lot of this stuff coming out, and it just gives you a lot of energy,” he said.

America’s diversity was novel to him. “There wasn’t African American culture or Mexican culture in Australia,” he said. “I had never heard of a burrito before.” And he was shocked, at first, by San Francisco’s openly gay and gender-bending culture.

Eventually, though, Ton-That let his hair grow long and embraced a gender-fluid identity himself, though he still preferred he/him pronouns. Before he turned twenty-one, he got married, to a Black woman of Puerto Rican descent with whom he performed in a band. (They were in love, he said, but it was also his path to a green card.)

Desperate to make money and continue funding his stay in the United States, he jettisoned his ideals and got to work cranking out Facebook quiz apps. Rather than a “snob” computer language, he adopted what everyone else was using: a basic, utilitarian language called PHP. Speed was more important than style when it came to cashing in on the latest consumer tech addiction. After one of Ton-That’s apps got some traction, Ravikant gave him $50,000 in seed money to keep going.

More than 6 million Facebook users installed Ton-That’s banal creations—“Have You Ever,” “Would You Rather,” “Friend Quiz,” and “Romantic Gifts”—which he monetized with little banner ads. Initially, Ton-That could get a Facebook user to invite all of their friends to take the quiz with just a few clicks. But the social network was starting to feel spammy. Every time users logged in, they were bombarded with notifications about their friends’ FarmVille activities and every quiz any of their friends had taken. Facebook decided to pull back on third-party developers’ ability to send notifications to a user’s friends, putting an end to the free marketing that Ton-That and others had come to rely on and drying up their steady stream of new users.

Still, Ton-That couldn’t believe how much data Facebook had given him along the way: The people who had installed his apps had ceded their names, their photos, their interests, and their likes, and all the same information for all of their friends. When Facebook opened its platform to developers like Ton-That, it didn’t just let new third-party apps in; it let users’ data flow out, a sin outsiders fully grasped only a decade later during the Cambridge Analytica scandal. But Ton-That didn’t have a plan for all that data, at least not yet.

Soon the Facebook app craze faded, and a new tech addiction arrived in the form of mobile apps. Soon after Ton-That arrived in California, Apple released the iPhone. “It was the first thing I got in San Francisco before I even got an apartment,” he said. The iPhone almost immediately became an expensive, must-have gadget, and the App Store became a thriving marketplace, with monied iPhone users willing to hand over their credit card numbers for apps that would make the most of their precious devices. As the smartphone economy began to boom, Ton-That sold his Facebook quiz company, paid Ravikant back, and turned to making iPhone games.

It was fun at first—and lucrative. He created a Pavlovian game called Expando that involved repeatedly tapping the iPhone’s screen to blow up digital smiley face balloons, while tilting the phone this way and that to roll the balloons away from orange particles that would pop them. People paid up to $1.99 each to download it, which added up quickly when the game proved popular. But over time, the iPhone game space got more competitive and the amount Ton-That could charge dropped until eventually he had to make the game free and rely on the money he made from annoying banner ads.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, companies like Google and Facebook convinced much of the planet that the tech industry had a noble plan to connect and enrich the global population, unlock the whole of human knowledge, and make the world a better place. But on the ground in San Francisco, many developers like Ton-That were just trying to strike it rich any dumb way they could.

About the Author

Kashmir Hill
Kashmir Hill is a tech reporter at The New York Times, where her writing about the intersection of privacy and technology pioneered the genre. Hill has worked and written for a number of publications, including The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Gizmodo, Popular Science, Forbes, and many others. More by Kashmir Hill
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