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A Washington Sheriff Wants Controversial Tech to ID Suspects

Benton County Sheriff's detectives want to use controversial software from Clearview AI to compare suspect images against a database of about 30 billion publicly available images. Not everyone loves the plan.

(TNS) — Should Benton County use an AI-powered photo search system to more quickly ID and arrest suspects?

Many who spoke at a hearing Friday, weren't so sure.

It was the third public session to explain how sheriff's detectives want use the controversial software that compares photos or video to a database of about 30 billion publicly available images.

Most of the 20 people who attended either didn't support it or had serious concerns.

They worried that Clearview AI's software could infringe on their privacy, that there weren't enough safeguards and that Clearview AI has had some high-profile mistakes that have resulted in lawsuits.

"The issue with Clearview AI, is that they misrepresent, and I'm assuming that they misrepresented to you too," said Sheri Oertel, an attorney who raised concerns about the program.

Sheriff's detectives and commanders promised they would be accountable for how they use the tool.

The $7,500 annual subscription would allow the agency to use the company's AI systems to compare photos and video from cases to images scraped from social media and other publicly available sources.

As part of the process to get the contract approved by the county commissioners, the sheriff's office must present a plan detailing how and when the system would be used, who has access to it and what steps would be taken to minimize the inadvertent collection of additional information.

The preliminary accountability report was finished last week before the hearing. As part of the 11-page report, the sheriff's office promised that Clearview would not have the final say in making identifications and the sheriff's office would annually audit the use of the software.

A fourth public comment session is planned for late February before commissioners vote on the funding.


The sheriff's office began looking at this software about a year ago while searching for a suspect in California.

Sheriff Tom Croskrey and Commander Lee Cantu see it as a software that could drastically cut down on the tedious and time consuming searches detectives use now.

They have pointed to the Benton City graduation party shooting, where six people were shot and one died. It took months of searching to compare video and photos from the party to suspect photos from social media accounts.

The software could have given officials answers much sooner, Croskrey told the Herald.

The officials leading Friday's meeting, which included Cantu, Detective Branden DeMeyer and Lt. Mike Clark, explained the agency plans to limit who would have training and access to the system.

Any comparison search with Clearview's database would result in images and links to a matching face found from social media. While no person's identification would show up in the system, the links provided could identify the person.

Officials said Clearview wouldn't have access to the pictures that are uploaded, and the images would stay in the system only as long as it was necessary for legal proceedings.

In addition, they planned annually to test how well the system operated by using photos of three volunteers.

And sheriff's officials would conduct regular audits.

Only the sheriff's office would have access to the system, but it remains unclear when they might use the system to benefit another agency's investigation.

Washington state law prevents any agency from using it unless it has created an accountability report. So in many cases, that would bar other agencies from using the software.

But it is possible that if the Benton County Sheriff's Office was responding to a call, such as the February 2022 shooting at Richland's Fred Meyer, that they could use the software to attempt to identify a suspect.

"If Richland or Pasco comes across a lost child ... we're not going to tell them, 'No.'" DeMeyer said.


Clearview AI is embroiled in at least two lawsuits involving false identifications.

In Houston, Macy's allegedly used the software to identify a man in a robbery who actually was in California at the time, according to a Fox 26 report.

Similarly, a Black man was wrongly arrested in Georgia because of misuse of Clearview AI's facial recognition technology, according to an ABC News report.

It's also been challenged in Illinois by the ACLU, where a settlement was supposed to limit access to the system by law enforcement.

Oertel argued that Clearview's claims of a nearly perfect record of identifying faces comes from using photographs taken with good lighting and in focus. They're not judged against the types of images police are likely to get.

"They haven't gone out and checked low quality, low light video surveillance that you get from a convenience store. They haven't checked partial faces," she said. "They haven't checked what you get from someone's cell phone that's running with half a hoodie (over their face.)"

In addition, some people were concerned that Benton County may not catch someone misusing the system. They said having internal audits was not enough to safeguard that it was being used incorrectly.

"I absolutely support apprehending criminals. I think we're all in support of that," one person in the crowd said. "What I'm fearful of is ... if you get a system like this and as they say, if it can be abused, it will be abused by somebody."

Sheriff's officials said it would be difficult to have an outside agency audit its use of the software because it may include information that pertains to open cases that investigators want to keep secret until someone is arrested.

While most people at the meeting were concerned about bringing Clearview AI to the Tri-Cities, there were people who supported the proposal as a way to make it easier to catch criminals.

©2024 Tri-City Herald, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.