crime

The Gainesville Police Department is using a highly-criticized facial recognition program that New Jersey’s attorney general ordered the state’s police to stop using due to privacy concerns.  

The program, Clearview AI, works by using profiles and partial images of faces to explore online databases such as social media, mugshots and other websites to identify subjects, said GPD spokesman Jorge Campos.

The system contains more than three billion images that Clearview claims to have scraped from Facebook, Youtube, Venmo and millions of other websites, according to The New York Times.

More than 600 law enforcement agencies have used the software in the past year, as first reported by The Times. Clearview AI denied providing a list of these agencies to The Times.  

The technology has been used to investigate and solve cases of identity theft, shoplifting, credit card fraud, murder and child sexual exploitation, according to the article. 

A $10,000 annual Clearview AI license was bought by GPD in September, Campos said. The police department discovered Clearview AI through CrimeDex, an online network used by law enforcement and investigators to prevent various types of crime. 

GPD has already conducted more than 2,000 searches using Clearview AI since the department started a free trial in July. GPD said 13 people have access to the program, Campos said. 

Campos declined to state who the 13 individuals are. 

“Every inquiry that [the 13 people] make is logged and categorized so they have to have an active case that they’re working in order to use it,” Campos said. “All the accounts are protected through username or password.”

GPD Sgt. Nick Ferrera told The Gainesville Sun that he’s worked with other police departments to share hits obtained from Clearview AI. 

April Smiddy, a detective of the Springfield, Illinois Police Department, asked Ferrera in an email if she should state on an arrest report whether or not a photo match was made using Clearview AI.

Smiddy wrote the following message to Ferrera:

“I wasn’t sure if there were any issues with trying to keep the information away from suspects about how we got their information.”

“You can keep it general and say ‘through the use of investigative techniques.’ It’s not going to be totally wrong if you mention it,” Ferrera wrote back. 

Despite having discussed GPD’s use of the technology with The Gainesville Sun and The New York Times, Ferrera declined to comment to The Alligator, stating that all media requests must go through Campos first. 

Clearview AI is not the first facial recognition system to be used by GPD. The department previously relied on Florida’s FACES system, Campos said, which uses photos that are taken head-on, unlike Clearview AI that uses profiles and partial photos. 

Ferrera told The Gainesville Sun that the software is “extremely useful” and GPD has established safeguards to prohibit any unauthorized searches, or searches unrelated to active cases.

Each search using Clearview AI creates a log that notes which device the inquiry was made on, ensuring that any unauthorized usage is tracked, Campos said. No unauthorized usage has been reported as of yet.

Campos said he has conducted a number of internet investigation presentations over the years, and any time a person uploads, submits, or transmits a picture or information on the internet, they’ve immediately “lost control of access to the data or picture.”

“Anybody that puts anything on Facebook and makes it public and has an expectation of privacy has a false expectation of privacy,” Campos said.

While social media is a helpful tool for dealing with cases involving children who otherwise wouldn’t be identified online, Campos said only 5 to 8 percent of matches made by GPD are from social media websites. 

More than 90 percent of matches are obtained through jail and sexual offender photographs, he said.

“It is very uncommon for us to get a social media hit,” Campos said.

Campos said it’s simply too early in the development of laws regarding facial recognition to conclude that any wrong is being done. As far as he’s aware, no rights have been violated through use of the Clearview AI. 

“The Gainesville Police Department believes that if any of that [information collected by Clearview AI] is obtained legally and has been made ready to the public, then we stand by that use,” Campos said.

Despite the backlash its received, GPD plans to continue using the technology. Campos said at the end of the day, police must “do their due diligence to ensure safety through the use of any legal tool available.” 

“Crime knows no jurisdictional boundaries,” Campos said. “So, to limit access to certain things in that manner severely hampers law enforcement’s ability to detect and identify offenders.”

Contact Samia Lagmis at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @SLagmis.