(TNS) — After repeated denials, Virginia Beach police admitted last week some of their detectives used a controversial facial recognition program during criminal investigations.
In February 2020 and again in September, the Police Department told The Virginian-Pilot it had never used Clearview AI. It also denied using any other facial recognition technology recently, though the department briefly experimented with an in-house system at the Oceanfront in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
But records obtained by The Pilot through the state’s open records law revealed 10 detectives signed up for Clearview accounts, from November 2019 to at least late February 2020. Only after those detectives asked the department to pay to use Clearview on a more permanent basis did police officials realize they’d been wrong when they repeatedly told the newspaper the department had never used Clearview, police spokeswoman Officer Linda Kuehn said Tuesday. She said that’s what she’d been told, which is why she issued the denials to The Pilot in February 2020 and in September.
And so Chief Paul Neudigate has ordered a department-wide review of how new technology is evaluated and adopted, especially when it has the potential to impact people’s privacy, Kuehn said.
A department supervisor said it’s common for officers to try new tools without telling their bosses at first, especially if they can get free trials. But this wasn’t just any app — it’s one so controversial it’s led to calls for federal regulation. And Virginia lawmakers just unanimously passed a bill that would bar local police from using a tool like Clearview without explicit state permission.
The Virginia Beach detectives who tried Clearview were not alone. The department was one of more than 600 law enforcement agencies across the country which, between Jan. 1, 2019 and January 2020, started using Clearview AI, an app made by a tech startup of the same name that’s been aggressively marketing its services to law enforcement, according to a January 2020 investigative report in The New York Times.
Clearview enticed police detectives to their program by promising it was “like Google Search for faces.” For police, the process is simple: Upload a photo of an unknown person or suspect to the company’s app, which then spit out public photos of those people, along with links to where those photos appeared. The system — powered by a database of more than 3 billion images that Clearview claims to have scraped from Facebook, YouTube, Venmo and millions of other websites — goes far beyond anything ever built by the United States government or Silicon Valley heavyweights, according to the New York Times report.
Though Virginia Beach officers signed up for Clearview accounts, Kuehn said, the police department never paid for or officially OK’d using the facial recognition program, which is why none of the top brass knew Clearview was being used until later. Detectives started using the program on their own and, after it helped them solve two cases, they eventually suggested to their commanding officer that the department consider paying for a license to use the program.
The boss rejected their proposal, Kuehn said. That commanding officer was Capt. Theresa Orr, head of the detective bureau. In an interview, she said that, after detectives pitched her, she researched Clearview, discovered people’s concerns about privacy and decided the department didn’t want to “jump into those shark-infested waters.” She also said go-getters often try out technology without telling their superiors until they’ve vetted it. If detectives are impressed, then they run it up the flagpole to ask the department to pay for something beyond a trial run. Without test driving a new service or thingamajig, investigators don’t know whether it’s worthwhile. That’s what happened with Clearview.
“It was one of those, ‘What comes first: the chicken or the egg?’” Orr said. Many of the detectives who signed up for Clearview are in the property crimes unit, she said. Property crimes detectives don’t get the cutting-edge tools afforded to their coworkers who investigate child porn or drug trafficking. Plus, they work a lot of cases. Anything that gives them just a little bit of an edge is going to be attractive.
“They are often trying to do the best they can to stay ahead of things,” Orr said. “At the end of the day, it’s people trying to get cases solved. “There was no nefarious intent.” Nevertheless, Orr said that, after Clearview, she ordered her detectives to stop using their police department emails to try out a product or service, unless a supervisor has approved it.
Because of the way Clearview offers trial accounts, it’s not unheard of for police supervisors to not know individual officers have signed up for the company’s program. Law enforcement officers can start using the app with little more difficulty than downloading Facebook or Twitter. “(Vendors like Clearview) make it easy,” Orr said.
BuzzFeed News reporters found the top brass in some law enforcement agencies appear not to have known officers were using Clearview. The New York Police Department, the nation’s largest, initially denied it had any formal relationship with Clearview, but records showed officers there had run more than 11,000 searches, the most of any entity in the records obtained by BuzzFeed News. More than 30 officers had Clearview accounts, according to that internal Clearview data.
The Norfolk Police Department is the only other Hampton Roads law enforcement agency that’s said it’s used Clearview. Like in Virginia Beach, Norfolk detectives signed up for free, trial accounts — almost at exactly the same time as their colleagues in the Beach. When the Norfolk detectives pushed their superiors to pay for permanent licenses, Chief Larry Boone rejected their bid. And so Norfolk police stopped using the program in February 2020.
“That can be perceived to be so intrusive — Big Brother is watching,” Boone said during an interview last year. “Our current society isn’t quite ready for that.” Even though Virginia Beach and Norfolk police have stopped using Clearview, questions remain about the use of such technology to investigate crimes, whether in Virginia or across the country. There’s little oversight, legal or scientific, of how people’s images can be collected and used — even when they could help send people to prison.
Investigators in the nation’s roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies are often able to unilaterally adopt whatever investigative tools they want, whether or not they’ve been rigorously tested by scientists or other law enforcement professionals.
And they often don’t have to tell anyone. In Virginia Beach, the top brass within the department didn’t know its own officers were using it, at least a first. In Norfolk, the mayor and a majority of City Council members said they didn’t know police had been using facial recognition technology.
“(That) really struck me as unacceptable,” said Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg.
So Aird earlier this year introduced legislation, House Bill 2031, to tightly restrict how police can use facial recognition technology. Last month, Virginia lawmakers unanimously passed it, which Aird said was the result of The Pilot’s investigation into how the Norfolk Police Department had been using facial recognition technology. Aird called her legislation “a de facto ban” because it would, among other things, require the General Assembly to pass a law specifically authorizing a police department to use the technology.
Gov. Ralph Northam has until March 31 to decide whether to sign the bill, but given the bipartisan support, it seems likely to become law one way or the other.
©2021 The Virginian-Pilot, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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