Resources

A Government Watchdog May Have Missed Clearview AI Use By Five Federal Agencies

A government inquiry into federal agencies’ deployment of facial recognition may have overlooked some organizations’ use of popular biometric identification software Clearview AI, calling into question whether authorities can understand the extent to which the emerging technology has been used by taxpayer-funded entities. In a 92-page report published by the Government Accountability Office on Tuesday, five agencies — the US Capitol Police, the US Probation Office, the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, Transportation Security Administration, and the Criminal Investigation Division at the Internal Revenue Service — said they didn’t use Clearview AI between April 2018 and March 2020. This, however, contradicts internal Clearview data previously reviewed by BuzzFeed News.

In April, BuzzFeed News revealed that those five agencies were among more than 1,800 US taxpayer-funded entities that had employees who tried or used Clearview AI, based on internal company data. As part of that story, BuzzFeed News published a searchable table disclosing all the federal, state, and city government organizations whose employees are listed in the data as having used the facial recognition software as of February 2020. While the GAO was tasked with “review[ing] federal law enforcement use of facial recognition technology,” the discrepancies between the report, which was based on survey responses and BuzzFeed News’ past reporting, suggest that even the US government may not be equipped to track how its own agencies access to surveillance tools like Clearview. The GAO report surveyed 42 federal agencies in total, 20 of which reported that they either owned their own facial recognition system or used one developed by a third party between April 2018 and March 2020. Ten federal agencies — including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection — said they specifically used Clearview AI.

Police Are Using Facial Recognition For Minor Crimes, ‘Because They Can’

In a recent court filing, the New York police department noted that it’s turned to facial recognition in more than 22,000 cases in the last three years. “Even though the NYPD claims facial recognition is only used for serious crimes, the numbers tell a different story,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “As facial recognition continues to grow, it’s being routinely deployed for everything from shoplifting to graffiti.”

Asked for comment, an NYPD spokeswoman pointed to a 2019 opinion article by police commissioner James O’Neill titled “How Facial Recognition Makes You Safer.” In the piece, O’Neill talked about how facial recognition had been used to make arrests in murder, robbery and rape cases, but he didn’t disclose how often it was used for low-level crimes. The department’s facial recognition policy, established in March, allows the technology to be used for any crime, no matter the severity. Without any limits, police have more frequently used the technology for petty thefts than the dangerous crimes, privacy advocates say. Before Amazon put a moratorium on police use of its Rekognition face-identifying software, the program was used in a $12 shoplifting case in Oregon in 2018…

Without any limits, police can use facial recognition however they please, and in many cases, arrested suspects don’t even know that the flawed technology was used… Attorneys representing protesters in Miami didn’t know that police used facial recognition in their arrests, according to an NBC Miami report. Police used facial recognition software in a $50 drug dealing case in Florida in 2016 but made no mention of it in the arrest report.

The article also notes that as recently as this Tuesday, Hoan Ton-That, the CEO of facial recognition startup Clearview AI “said it isn’t the company’s responsibility to make sure its technology is being properly used by its thousands of police partners.

“Though the company has its own guidelines, Ton-That said Clearview AI wouldn’t be enforcing them, saying that ‘it’s not our job to set the policy as a tech company…'”

Clearview AI CEO Says ‘Over 2,400 Police Agencies’ Are Using Its Facial Recognition Software

More than 2,400 police agencies have entered contracts with Clearview AI, a controversial facial recognition firm, according to comments made by Clearview AI CEO Hoan Ton-That in an interview with Jason Calacanis on YouTube.

The hour-long interview references an investigation by The New York Times published in January, which detailed how Clearview AI scraped data from sites including Facebook, YouTube, and Venmo to build its database. The scale of that database and the methods used to construct it were already controversial before the summer of protests against police violence. “It’s an honor to be at the center of the debate now and talk about privacy,” Ton-That says in the interview, going on to call the Times investigation “actually extremely fair.” “Since then, there’s been a lot of controversy, but fundamentally, this is such a great tool for society,” Ton-That says.

Ton-That also gave a few more details on how the business runs. Clearview is paid depending on how many licenses a client adds, among other factors, but Ton-That describes the licenses as “pretty inexpensive, compared to what’s come previously” in his interview. Ton-That ballparks Clearview’s fees as $2,000 a year for each officer with access. According to Ton-That, Clearview AI is primarily used by detectives.

Clearview AI was used at least once to identify protesters in Miami.

Facial recognition was also used by the New York Police Department to arrest an activist during the Black Lives Matter uprising this summer. According to a BuzzFeed News report in February, NYPD was at the time the largest user of Clearview AI — where more than 30 officers had Clearview accounts.