In brief

  • Coinbase is testing a controversial facial recognition technology produced by Clearview AI.
  • Clearview AI's tech identifies people in photos or videos by drawing upon a 3 billion+ database of images its collected from social media sites.
  • Coinbase said it's not using customers' personal information.

Coinbase, the largest cryptocurrency exchange in the United States, is testing the controversial facial recognition technology produced by Clearview AI, the company confirmed to BuzzFeed in a statement.

Clearview’s artificial intelligence software learns from a database of over three billion images, pulled from social media sites, to identify people’s faces. Such technology is useful for companies or law enforcement organizations that want to track criminals based on photographs or videos.

Among other clients, which total more than 2,900, are US federal agencies such as ICE and the FBI, and corporate giants like Walmart, BuzzFeed discovered after an anonymous source supplied documents. 

Since Clearview does not request consent from those it profiles, privacy advocates have admonished the organizations that use it—particularly law enforcement agencies—since there’s scant regulatory framework around it. “This tool goes way beyond anything that is legal, and there is literally no accountability for how they're going to use this tool,” Jancinta González, a senior campaign director at Latinx advocacy group Mijente, a Latinx advocacy group, told BuzzFeed. “They could walk into a supermarket, scan people, see if it matches up, and deport them immediately.”

Privacy advocates from within the blockchain community have also criticized its technology; privacy-based cryptocurrencies, like Monero, are prized for their anonymity, for instance, a principle Clearview’s technology disregards. 

So why is Coinbase using it?  

"Our security and compliance teams tested Clearview AI to see if the service could meaningfully bolster our efforts to protect employees and offices against physical threats and investigate fraud," a spokesperson for Coinbase told BuzzFeed. "At this time, we have not made any commitments to use Clearview AI,” they said, and added that the tests did not use customer data. 

The sites from which Clearview draws its data, Facebook, Google, and Twitter, have threatened the company with legal action, since Clearview’s actions violate their terms of service. 

In addition, Clearview’s attorney Tor Ekeland said that there were numerous inaccuracies in the information Buzzfeed obtained but didn’t specify what they were.

Taylor Monahan, Founder and CEO of MyCrypto, told Decrypt, “The optimistic side of me wants to believe that this was not something Coinbase investigated with any amount of diligence,” and that Coinbase is testing the technology out of curiosity, and nothing more. “That said, we know Coinbase invests heavily in new technology to address money laundering and fraud within their system,” she added.

“Has the organization become too focused on 'technology as the solution' that they cannot see the moral, ethical, and privacy issues with their choices?" she asked.

Decrypt has reached out to Coinbase, and will update this story with further detail accordingly.