Trending Topics

San Diego police, DA ban use of facial recognition app — but not before it was tested

The departments tested free trial versions of the software during investigations before the department banned it last month

David Hernandez
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — Imagine a “search engine for faces.”

That’s how a co-founder of Clearview AI has described the facial recognition app, a relatively new tool for law enforcement agencies to use to identify suspected criminals by matching photos of suspects to images and profiles online.

With an internal database of more than three billion images scraped from Google and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, Clearview allows law enforcement agencies to upload an image and — if there’s a match — see public photos of the person.

According to the New York-based startup behind the app, more than 600 law enforcement agencies started using Clearview in the past year. Most of that occurred without public scrutiny until the New York Times published an exposé in January, a report that gave rise to concerns about potential violations of privacy and civil liberties.

Among the agencies that have used the app are the San Diego Police Department and the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office. Their respective spokesmen confirmed, as first reported by NBC 7, that detectives and investigators used the app on a free-trial basis.

Two San Diego police detectives used Clearview as part of investigations into financial crimes, police Lt. Shawn Takeuchi said, adding that the app was used “in partnership with our private business partners in the banking industry.”

Takeuchi declined to say whether Clearview helped in any way, saying he was not allowed to comment on criminal investigations.

Within the District Attorney’s Office, eight investigators tried the app, according to spokesman Steve Walker, who said it was not used in any cases that resulted in charges.

Both the Police Department and District Attorney’s Office ultimately instructed their personnel to not use Clearview.

“Investigators in our office have been informed they are not to participate in free trials of any kind without authorization,” Walker said earlier this month.

Police banned the use of Clearview in a department-wide memo dated Feb. 19.

Takeuchi said the department plans to look at whether to develop a policy regarding the use of free trials offered by technology companies.

Facial recognition tools for law enforcement agencies are not new, but their use has generally been limited to searching government-provided images, such as mugshots.

In California, a state law that took effect in January prohibits law enforcement agencies from using handheld and body-worn cameras for facial recognition. But Assembly Bill 1215 is not an outright ban on the use of facial recognition by law enforcement agencies; the law leaves a gap.

Adam Schwartz, a senior lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said an officer can presumably obtain an image from, say, a camera-equipped street light — of which there are more than 3,000 in San Diego — and upload the photo on an app like Clearview.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for online civil liberties, is among the groups that generally oppose the use of Clearview and other facial recognition technology, which has long been controversial.

“With the massive proliferation of cameras in public places, and the sophistication of algorithms, we are hurdling toward a world where governments, corporations, stalkers, whoever it is... (can) see where we’ve been, what we are doing and who we are with,” Schwartz said.

Critics, including researchers and civil-rights advocates, say facial recognition is problematic because the technology is not 100 percent reliable, particularly in cases that involve women or people of color.

In Clearview’s case, it’s unclear how accurate the matches are. The company’s website states that “an independent panel of experts reviewed and certified Clearview for accuracy and reliability,” but the site does not offer further insight. The company told the New York Times the app finds matches up to 75 percent of the time.

Schwartz said facial recognition poses a significant threat to civil liberty and racial justice. For instance, he said, the technology could deter someone from attending a protest because of fear that photos of the person taken during the demonstration could one day turn up as part of a pre-employment screening.

Then there is the use of facial recognition by retailers in attempts to identify potential shoplifters by using a database of mugshots — a system that Schwartz said targets people of color “because of the baseline injustice in our criminal justice system.”

Schwartz said he believes it should be up to elected city leaders to decide whether police should be allowed to use technology and apps like Clearview.

In May of last year, San Francisco became the first city to outlaw the use of facial recognition by city and county agencies, including police. The nearby cities of Oakland and Berkeley followed suit.