A startup is making a profit off the photos you post on Facebook by using them for a facial recognition app.

Clearview AI has collected over three billion images from the Internet to develop the facial recognition software that’s now being used by more than 600 U.S. law enforcement agencies, according to a New York Times investigation. The agencies upload a photo of a person of interest, and then Clearview sends matching pictures from the Internet and links to where the images were found.

Debate is swirling around facial recognition technology. Privacy advocates worry that it will be used to build a police surveillance state. False positives might incriminate innocent people, and the technology has a tendency to make mistakes among some groups, such as people of color.

“Laws have to determine what’s legal, but you can’t ban technology,” Kirenaga Partners’ David Scalzo, an early investor in Clearview, told the New York Times. “Sure, that might lead to a dystopian future or something, but you can’t ban it.”

The process of scraping Facebook, YouTube, Venmo and other websites may violate the sites’ terms of service. And there are risks posed by law enforcement agencies uploading sensitive pictures to Clearview’s servers, according to the Times.

“Laws have to determine what’s legal, but you can’t ban technology.”

Clearview was founded by Hoan Ton-That, an Australian techie, and Richard Schwartz, a former aide to Rudolph Giuliani. The company is backed by Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, Palantir Technologies and Founders Fund.

Perhaps even more disconcerting for privacy advocates is the programming code that would enable Clearview’s app it to be paired with augmented reality glasses, which has the potential to give members of law enforcement the ability to walk down the street and identify the people they come across with just a glance.

Some U.S. cities, including San Francisco and Oakland, California, have banned facial recognition technology, but the federal government has a hands-off policy. The European Union is considering a temporary ban on facial recognition technologies used by both public and private entities, according to a draft white paper. 

  • The EU’s proposal for a ban on facial-recognition technology won backing from Alphabet Chief Executive Sundar Pichai on Jan. 20, according to Reuters.
  • In Florida, local authorities  used images from a store’s surveillance video and Clearview software to identify and arrest a suspect in the theft of two grills and a vacuum on Nov. 20.