The NYPD used a controversial facial recognition tool. Here’s what you need to know.


The emails run from October 2018 to February 2020 and begin with introducing Hoan Ton-That, CEO of Clearview AI, to NYPD Assistant Inspector Chris Flanagan. After initial discussions, Clearview AI signed a supplier contract with NYPD on a trial basis in December 2018, which lasted until the following March.

The documents show that many people at NYPD had access to Clearview during and after that time, from department heads to junior staff. Throughout the exchange, Clearview encouraged AI to make greater use of its services. (“See if you can get 100 searches,” the onboarding instructions prompted officials.) The emails show that the trial accounts for the NYPD weren’t created until February 2020, almost a year after the trial ended .

We checked the emails and spoke to leading surveillance and legal experts about their contents. Here’s what you need to know.

NYPD lied about the extent of its relationship with Clearview AI and the use of its facial recognition technology

The NYPD previously told BuzzFeed News and the New York Post that it had “no institutional relationship” with Clearview AI, “formal or informal.” While the department announced that it had tested Clearview AI, the emails show that the technology has been used over a long period of time by large numbers of people who have performed high volume searches in real-world investigations.

In one exchange, a detective who works in the department’s facial recognition department said, “The app works great.” In another case, an NYPD identity theft team official said that “we continue to get positive results” and “have continued to make arrests.” “. (We have removed full names and email addresses from these images. Other personal information has been edited in the original documents.)

Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a nonprofit advocating the end of the use of facial recognition technology by police in New York City, says the recordings clearly reflect earlier public statements by NYPD about the use of Disagree with Clearview AI.

“Here we have a pattern of officials who received Clearview accounts – not for weeks or months, but over the years,” he says. “We have evidence of meetings with senior officials in the NYPD, including the Facial Recognition Department. These are quite a few officials who decide to open a test account. This was a systematic introduction of Clearview’s face recognition technology to New Yorkers. “

The NYPD’s description of facial recognition required under a recently passed law went on to say, “Investigators are comparing the probe images obtained during the investigation with a controlled and limited set of photos already in the NYPD’s possession. Clearview AI is known for its database of over 3 billion photos taken from the internet.

NYPD is working closely with immigration enforcement, and officials referred Clearview AI to ICE

The documents contain several emails from the NYPD that appear to be recommendations to assist Clearview in selling its technology to the Department of Homeland Security. Two police officers had both NYPD and Homeland Security associations in their email signature, while another officer was identified as a member of a Homeland Security task force.

“There just seems to be so much communication, maybe data sharing and so much unregulated use of technology.”

New York is a designated sanctuary city, which means that local law enforcement agencies are restricting cooperation with federal immigration authorities. In fact, the NYPD’s facial recognition statement states that “information will not be shared to promote immigration enforcement” and “other agencies will not be given access to advance immigration enforcement.”

“I think one of the big challenges is how lawless and unregulated the interaction, surveillance, and data sharing landscape between local police, federal law enforcement, and immigration enforcement is,” said Matthew Guariglia, an analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “There just seems to be so much communication, maybe data sharing and so much unregulated use of technology.”

According to Cahn, the emails immediately ring alarm bells, especially since much of the information about law enforcement agencies is routed through central systems known as fusion centers.

“You can say that you are a shelter, whatever you want, but as long as you have these DHS task forces, as long as you continue to have information fusion centers that allow real-time data exchange with the DHS, you are turning that promise into a lie . ”

Many officials asked to use Clearview AI on their personal devices or through their personal email accounts

At least four officers asked for access to the Clearview app on their personal devices or through personal emails. Departmental devices are tightly regulated and applications can be difficult to download onto official NYPD cell phones. Some officers clearly chose to use their personal devices when the department’s phones were too restrictive.

Clearview replied to this email: “Hi William, you should have a setup email in your inbox shortly.”

Jonathan McCoy is a digital forensics attorney with the Legal Aid Society and participated in the Freedom of Information Application filing. He found the use of personal devices particularly problematic: “In my opinion, they have actively tried to circumvent NYPD policies and procedures that say you must go through FIS (face identification section) if you want to use face recognition technology and you must have the technology that has already been approved by NYPD Wholesalers. “NYPD already has a facial recognition system provided by a company called Dataworks.


Steven Gregory