The Los Angeles Police Department has banned the use of commercial facial recognition systems, following inquiries from BuzzFeed News about its officers’ use of a controversial software known as Clearview AI.
The LAPD, the third-largest police department in the United States, issued a moratorium on the use of third-party facial recognition software on Nov. 13, after it was told that documents seen by BuzzFeed News showed more than 25 LAPD employees had performed nearly 475 searches using Clearview AI as of earlier this year. Department officials have made conflicting statements in the past about their use of facial recognition technology, including claims that they deploy it sparingly.
Officials with the department told BuzzFeed News that its proposed new policy will still permit the use of facial recognition but only through a Los Angeles County system that relies on suspect booking images.
Clearview AI is unique in that it scrapes images from social media and other websites and has built a database of billions of photos on which it’s trained its technology.
“It has come to the Department’s attention that a limited number of personnel have accessed commercial facial recognition systems (such as Clearview or other services) for Department business,” Deputy Police Chief John McMahon wrote in a departmentwide statement, noting that those systems use “non-criminal source images” in their databases. “Department personnel shall not use third-party commercial facial recognition services or conduct facial recognition searches on behalf of outside agencies.”
“Clearview grabs photos from all over the place, and that, from a department standpoint, raises public trust concerns.”
BuzzFeed News reported in March that people at more than 2,200 law enforcement departments, government agencies, and private companies across 27 countries have used Clearview AI. In many cases, the company did not have paid relationships with these users, instead allowing them to use the software on a free trial basis.
Documents obtained by BuzzFeed News via public records requests showed that Clearview AI previously misrepresented how law enforcement used its software and once told police officers to "run wild" with the tool by testing it on friends and family members. The company also handed out access to political allies, Republican lawmakers, and entities in countries with questionable human rights records.
Following BuzzFeed News’ reporting on the company and multiple lawsuits, Clearview AI has said it would no longer provide its tool to non–law enforcement entities.
Documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News showed that more than 25 LAPD employees ran nearly 475 searches with Clearview AI over a three-month period beginning at the end of 2019. Following a BuzzFeed News inquiry, McMahon, who runs the department’s IT division determined that a small group of “investigators” had been using Clearview.
On some occasions, the officers “have hit it more than once, and that's not authorized,” he said. “Clearview grabs photos from all over the place, and that, from a department standpoint, raises public trust concerns.”
LAPD officials confirmed that investigators were using Clearview AI but declined to say which officers and which specific cases it was used for. They also refused to say whether the facial recognition software has led to arrests of any suspects.
“The LAPD had a trial of Clearview AI as have many other law enforcement agencies around the country,” Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday.
Ton-That also said that "over 2,400 police agencies" have used the company's facial recognition tool, and that each Clearview search is now “annotated with a case number and a crime type.”
“Last week, when you brought to our attention that we had employees who used Clearview, we put out a notice directing employees that they can't use third-party software,” Horace Frank, an assistant chief with the LAPD, told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday. “We are in the process of putting out a larger, formal policy as we speak.”
As a department, the LAPD authorizes the use of a system that compares images of faces called the Los Angeles County Regional Identification System (LACRIS), which relies on more than 8,275,000 booking photos and mugshots and does not incorporate images from social media or the web. LACRIS runs on a software called DataWorks Plus.
“Regular street officers don’t need access to a tool like this.”
Only a fraction of the LAPD’s force — 325 officers out of about 10,000 — are permitted to use the service, Frank said.
“We don’t just give you access to it; you have to have a need,” he told BuzzFeed News. “Regular street officers don’t need access to a tool like this.”
The LAPD has come under fire in the past for its use of facial recognition. Despite an official’s claims that the department has rarely, if at all, used facial recognition, the Los Angeles Times reported in September that the LAPD had used LACRIS 30,000 times since 2009. According to the Times, police officials refused its reporters’ public records requests pertaining to facial recognition software, saying “it didn’t use such technology or any related services.”
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Frank defended the department’s decadelong, “widely known” use of LACRIS and said that it “isn’t cloak-and-dagger secret technology.”
The LAPD officers’ use of Clearview is not the first time that police officers have deployed the tool without the permission of their superiors. The New York Police Department previously denied having any formal relationship with Clearview, but documents showed that officers there had run more than 11,000 searches as of earlier this year. At the time, that was the highest number of searches from any organization to use the service.
An NYPD spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in March that while it does not have any contract or agreement with Clearview, its “established practices did not authorize the use of services such as Clearview AI, nor did they specifically prohibit it.” The spokesperson said at the time that the department was in the process of “updating the NYPD’s policy on Facial Recognition practices to address emerging issues.”