Emails run from October 2018 to February 2020, starting with Hoan Ton-That, CEO of Clearview AI be presented to NYPD Assistant Inspector Chris Flanagan. After initial meetings, Clearview AI entered into a supplier contract with NYPD in December 2018 on a trial basis which lasted until the following March.
The documents show that many people in the NYPD had access to Clearview during and after this time, from the head of the department to junior officers. Throughout the exchanges, Clearview AI encouraged strong use of its services. (“See if you can hit 100 searches,” urged its onboarding instructions to agents.) The emails show that the test accounts for the NYPD were created in February 2020, nearly a year after the end of the trial period.
We have reviewed the emails and discussed their content with top surveillance and legal experts. Here’s what you need to know.
NYPD Lied About Extent Of Relationship With Clearview AI And Use Of Facial Recognition Technology
NYPD said Buzzfeed News and the New York Post Previously, it had “no institutional relationship” with Clearview AI, “formally or informally”. The NYPD revealed that it had tested Clearview AI, but emails show that it was used for an extended period by a large number of people who performed a high volume of searches in actual investigations.
In an exchange, a detective working in the department’s facial recognition unit said, “The app is working very well.” In another, an officer from the NYPD Identity Theft Team said, “We continue to receive positive results” and have “made arrests.” (We have removed full names and email addresses from these images, other personal information has been removed from the original documents.)
Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a nonprofit that advocates for the end of police use of facial recognition technology in New York City, said the records clearly contradicted public statements NYPD reports on its use of Clearview AI.
“Here we have a model of agents who get Clearview accounts – not for weeks or months – but over the years,” he says. “We have evidence of meetings with officials at the highest level of the NYPD, including the facial identification section. It’s not a few officers who decide to go and get a trial account. It was a systematic adoption of Clearview’s facial recognition technology to target New Yorkers. “
In addition, the NYPD description of his use of facial recognition, which is required under a recently passed law, says that “investigators are comparing probe images obtained during investigations with a controlled and limited group of photographs already in the possession of the NYPD.” Clearview AI is known for its database of more than 3 billion photos scraped from the web.
NYPD is working closely with immigration law enforcement and officers have referred Clearview AI to ICE
The emails show that the NYPD sent several emails belonging to ICE agents in what appear to be referrals to help Clearview sell its technology to the Department of Homeland Security. Two police officers had both NYPD and Homeland Security affiliations in their email signature, while another agent identified himself as a member of a Homeland Security task force.
New York is designated as a Sanctuary City, which means local law enforcement is limiting its cooperation with federal immigration agencies. In fact, the facial recognition of the NYPD policy statement says “information is not shared in the context of immigration law enforcement” and that “access will not be granted to other agencies for the purpose of strengthening law enforcement in immigration matters.
“I think one of the big takeaways is how anarchic and unregulated landscape of interactions, surveillance and data sharing is between local police, federal law enforcement and government agencies. ‘immigration,’ says Matthew Guariglia of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “It seems like there’s so much communication, maybe data sharing, and so much unregulated use of technology.”
Cahn says the emails immediately sound the alarm, especially as a lot of law enforcement information travels through central systems known as fusion centers.
“You can pretend you’re a sanctuary city whatever you want, but as long as you continue to have these DHS working groups, as long as you continue to have information fusion centers that allow the exchange of data in real time with DHS, you’re making that promise a lie.
Many agents have requested to use Clearview AI on their personal devices or through their personal email accounts
At least four agents have requested access to the Clearview app on their personal devices or through personal emails. The department’s devices are tightly regulated, and it can be difficult to download apps on official NYPD mobile phones. Some officers clearly chose to use their personal devices when the ministry’s phones were too restrictive.
Clearview replied to this email: “Hello William, you should soon have a setup email in your inbox.”
Jonathan McCoy is a digital forensics lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and was involved in filing the Freedom of Information request. He found the use of personal devices particularly troublesome. “My takeaway is that they were actively trying to get around NYPD policies and procedures that say if you’re going to use facial recognition technology you have to go through FIS (facial identification section) and they have to use technology that is already approved by the NYPD wholesaler. NYPD already has a facial recognition system, provided by a company called Dataworks.