Picture this: your Instagram or Facebook photos all compiled as part of a facial recognition database that’s available to law enforcement agencies. That’s what start-up company Clearview AI is doing. The program scraps billions of online images, from places like Twitter and Venmo.
Clearview AI promotes its product as a tool for law enforcement, not for general public consumption. The app scrapes the internet for publicly available photos and then uses facial recognition to identify potential suspects.
More than 600 law enforcement agencies started using Clearview AI in the past year, including the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, according to a New York Times report.
E-mails obtained by NBC 7 Investigates between Clearview AI and the San Diego Police Department show the department was one of those agencies.
It started testing the technology last year.
A spokesperson for the SDPD says they are no longer using Clearview AI and quote "prohibited personnel from using it" after the testing phase. They are also "evaluating concerns over the ethics related to this technology."
NBC 7 Investigates also found an email suggesting the District Attorney’s office used the software as well.
A spokesperson for the DA's office said eight investigators were offered a free trial of the software and used it. As a result of NBC 7’s questions, they said, "Investigators in [the] office have been reminded they are not to participate in free trials of any kind without authorization and DA personnel have been prohibited from using Clearview AI in the future."
The DA's office says it does not have a contract with Clearview AI.
Some critics say the technology is being used secretly. Law professor Andrew Ferguson is an expert in new technologies and big data surveillance.
He told NBC 7, “I think the public should be outraged by the fact that these types of technologies are being used without public awareness, transparency, and accountability. If it’s going to be used and it’s a big ‘if’ it should be used with strict policies and procedures. There needs to be judicial oversight and there needs to be a conversation over whether we are ok with this kind of power.”
NBC 7 Investigates checked other police departments in San Diego County and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. None of the agencies have tested or are currently using Clearview AI. The National City and La Mesa Police Departments did not respond to our requests for information regarding the program.
On Feb. 26 it was announced Clearview AI lost its entire client list to hackers. The company said it has patched the unspecified flaw that allowed the breach to happen and they were working to strengthen their security.
Clearview AI did not respond to NBC 7’s request for comment for this story.