Raleigh Police: Face ID company offered free trials to unauthorized employees

Digital Investigations

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Raleigh police say a company whose controversial face-recognition software they quit using also gave free trial memberships to other department employees beyond their three authorized users.

CBS17.com obtained a memo from Police Chief C.L. Deck-Brown as part of an investigation into the Raleigh Police Department’s arrangement with Clearview AI. The memo, dated Feb. 20, directed all personnel to immediately “cease the use of any unauthorized facial recognition systems” including Clearview.

RPD said Feb. 11 that it stopped using Clearview and would review both its arrangement with the company and its own 5-year-old policy on face-recognition systems.

That review so far uncovered evidence that “others were offered the use of this tool via an email regarding an invitation, user referral or free trial from the company,” according to the memo.

It is unclear how many trial membership offers were extended, if they were involved in any charges or arrests, or if they were even redeemed and used at all.

RPD spokeswoman Donna-Maria Harris told CBS17.com in an email that “because Clearview AI was soliciting officers individually, there is no way to accurately ga(u)ge or gather” those answers.

RPD stopped using the Clearview software halfway through its one-year deal with the company.

Clearview co-founder Richard Schwartz did not respond to multiple emails from CBS17.com seeking an explanation. An email to the company’s address for general media inquiries also went unanswered.

The company has boasted of a collection of billions of images, and sells access to that database to law enforcement agencies and “select security professionals” for use in investigations. Clearview does not make its database available to the general public and the first requirement of the registration process is to provide a government or work email address. 

Under RPD’s 2015 policy on face-identifying systems, people in only two specific roles – video forensic analyst and computer forensic analyst – are allowed to operate and secure such a system. Aside from supervisors conducting audits, no other people are supposed to have access to it.

Harris said the department granted access to Clearview to three people: A digital forensic analyst, that person’s supervisor and another analyst.

Another clause in RPD’s policy states that photos used for comparisons cannot come from social media sources unless they are obtained from the public domain and are directly related to an active criminal investigation. 

Several popular tech companies — Facebook, YouTube and Twitter among them – have demanded in recent weeks that Clearview stop scraping their websites for images, calling the practice a violation of their terms of service. 

Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That has argued in an interview with CBS that his company’s actions are protected by the First Amendment and are similar to how Google populates its search engine. 

“These are websites that the vast majority of us use,” said Ann Webb, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. “And for our city law enforcement to be using such a powerful tool with billions of images without a public discussion and without public officials having the opportunity to place boundaries on that is really concerning.” 

Two major California cities — San Francisco and Oakland – are among the municipalities across the nation that have banned the use of face-recognition technology by city government agencies, including police. Webb said the ACLU would support a similar ban in Raleigh but is not actively campaigning for one. 

Raleigh Police said it stopped using Clearview after receiving what it called unsatisfactory responses from the company in response to requests for help with an internal audit. 

CBS17.com obtained two emails sent to Clearview by Sgt. Chuck Penny of the Raleigh Police Intelligence Center. One was sent to Schwartz and the other went to the company’s general help account, asking for assistance in determining how many searches were run and how many of those resulted in matches. The email to the help account was not answered. Schwartz answered with one sentence. 

The $2,500 RPD paid Clearview on Aug. 7, 2019, from its information technology budget will not be refunded, Harris said. No contract exists with the company, she said, and the only written documentation provided to CBS17.com via a records request was an invoice for that amount billed to Lawrence Cullipher, the department’s IT director.

The department has said its searches with Clearview were used “with a specific focus on identifying victims of human trafficking and other serious crimes when other leads weren’t available or had been exhausted.” It also said investigators verified results through “other investigative techniques” before actions were taken, and they did not rely exclusively on those search results when filing charges.

“One of our big concerns is that putting this technology in the hands of law enforcement could end privacy as we know it,” Webb said. “And to let it happen behind closed doors without public engagement about the implications is extremely dangerous.” 

Other CBS17.com investigations:

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