Despite statements from the NYPD in early 2020 stating that it had no relationship with the facial recognition software company Clearview AI, documents from a new public records request reveal that the company was an acknowledged vendor to the department from as early as 2018 and continued to enjoy a congenial relationship with officers on the force long after.
The NYPD told BuzzFeed News in February 2020 that it “does not have any contract, agreement, or relationship with Clearview AI, formally or informally.” It also told BuzzFeed News in January 2020 that it has “no institutional relationship” with the company. However, documents obtained through a public records request submitted by Rachel Richards — with the help of The Legal Aid Society, who litigated to get the documents — contradict these claims.
These documents, which include emails and official contracts, are signed by Clearview cofounder and CEO Hoan Ton-That and authorize a Clearview trial that ran from December 2018 to March 2019. They show that the New York City Police Department, the largest police department in the country, with about 36,000 officers, has had a close and previously unknown relationship with Clearview that included in-person meetings and customer support from Ton-That.
On Monday, an NYPD spokesperson did not answer questions about the emails or the agency’s interactions with Clearview during the period they were exchanged. They described facial recognition as “a limited investigative tool” that compares a “still image from a surveillance video to a pool of lawfully possessed arrest photos.” The statement was identical to one that was provided to BuzzFeed News for a previous story.
Clearview AI, known for having scraped 3 billion photos without permission from platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, has distributed its software to thousands of police officers around the country, as BuzzFeed News recently detailed in a groundbreaking investigation.
But from March 2019 through at least February 2020, officers continued to sign up for Clearview through its free trial program, which gives people an unlimited amount of searches for at least 30 days, unless the company extends it. The emails also reveal that the NYPD tested Clearview on one of its own officers — a use of the software that Clearview has explicitly encouraged in the past, asking users to search for their friends.
“Take a selfie with Clearview or search a celebrity to see how powerful the technology can be,” a January 2020 email from Clearview to an NYPD officer reads.
Moreover, the emails show that the NYPD had a much more intimate relationship with Clearview than previously reported. Ton-That, for example, corresponded directly with several NYPD officers throughout the trial period, seeking feedback on the tool.
Clearview declined to answer specific questions about its relationship with the NYPD.
“We have the greatest respect and admiration for the NYPD, which protects those of us who live and work in New York City,” Ton-That said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “We were honored to provide our service to the NYPD on a trial basis. We are always here to assist should the need arise.”
The relationship between the NYPD and Clearview appears to have begun in October 2018, when Clearview cofounder Richard Schwartz emailed NYPD Lt. Gregory Besson, whom he had just met. Emails show that Besson connected him with Deputy Inspector Chris Flanagan, who “creates tons of wanted photographs” on the Financial Crimes Task Force, during the week of Oct. 15.
Schwartz told Besson that he was “personally highly committed to the success of the NYPD,” since he “served as Mayor Giuliani’s Senior Advisor and introduced him to Bill Bratton and Jack Maple.”
Days later, Flanagan emailed Ton-That saying some officers were already “using Clearview on a daily basis.”
“I am personally highly committed to the success of the NYPD.”
Ton-That soon began corresponding with officers, at times directly reminding them of their login credentials or resetting their passwords via email. On at least one occasion, an NYPD officer sent Ton-That pictures of three individuals who appear to have allegedly committed a crime at an ATM.
In December 2018, Flanagan told Ton-That and Schwartz that officers working with the Real Time Crime Center — a data hub that pulls from multiple surveillance sources operated by the NYPD — were “very impressed with Clearview’s capabilities.” But there were also some issues, like being unable to search for mugshots and Clearview’s lack of a search history.
“We would also need each search logged with our own case numbers and who conducted the searches to avoid misuse on our end,” Flanagan said.
At some later date, Clearview implemented a search history feature.
On Dec. 6, two days after Flanagan’s email, Clearview signed a nondisclosure agreement with the NYPD and filled out a vendor contract. The vendor contract stipulates that the NYPD is “only interested in learning about the products and/or services” offered by Clearview and does not guarantee an eventual purchase order. The testing period was stated to run from Dec. 6, 2018, to March 6, 2019.
During the 2018 to 2019 testing period, officers from the NYPD’s Financial Crimes Task Force, Grand Larceny Division, Facial Identification Section, and a task force for the Department of Homeland Security focused on crimes against children used Clearview, according to the emails. Ton-That also traded personal messages with several of them.
“How are the searches going? It’s fun,” Ton-That asked Michael King, the deputy inspector of the FBI’s New York Joint Terrorism Task Force.
“This application is amazing!! I’m still testing it,” King responded.
“How are the searches going? It’s fun.”
When an officer asked Ton-That if they could register for Clearview with a personal email account, Ton-That obliged. (Typically, officers sign up for Clearview using their work emails.) He gave advice to an NYPD officer who wanted to “streamline” a search of a “large number of images” related to an identity theft investigation, explaining that searching for many people can be done “easily and remotely.”
A February 2019 email includes a picture of an NYPD officer taken at a slanted angle, seemingly from a train.
“As per commissioner Reznick can you please identify the Member of the service in the photos,” NYPD Detective Alfredo Torres asked King.
King promptly forwarded the email to Ton-That. Clearview did not respond to questions about this exchange.
On March 6, 2019, the Clearview testing period ended. The emails indicate that the NYPD did not sign a paid contract with Clearview AI after that 90-day period, although several officers appeared to like the tool. In March 2019, detective Michael Furia from the facial recognition unit said he would “do all I can in helping the NYPD take signing on with Clearview as I am a big supporter.” The following month, when Ton-That asked Sgt. Sara Morris if she had any Clearview “success stories,” she said, “we continue to receive positive results that we confirm and [go on] to make arrests.”
Despite not signing a contract, many officers continued to use Clearview AI through at least Feb. 26, 2020, the date of the last of the responsive emails in the document.
Although Clearview had supporters within the NYPD, emails show that it did not always return matches for faces searched.
A series of emails sent from the Clearview help account to three different NYPD officers appear to show the number of searches the NYPD ran on Clearview each day and the “hit rate,” or, presumably, the percentage of those searches that came up with at least one match. Between March 18, 2019, and April 4, 2019, Clearview said the NYPD ran between 15 and 87 searches per day, with an average of 45 searches per day. The hit rate, meanwhile, varied between 32% and 59%, with an average of 48%.
Essentially, over 18 days, on average, Clearview got a positive match less than half the time.
Through 2019, officers continued to sign up for Clearview. In a “tips” document sent to NYPD officer Michael Rizo in July of that year, the company said that it has “a 30-60% match rate,” which appears to be consistent with the NYPD’s experience.
The email notes that it is “adding hundreds of millions of new faces every month and we expect to get to 80% by the end of this year.”
“If you get no results for a photo, first try another photo of your suspect, if you have one available,” the email also says. “If you still don’t get anything, try the same photos again in a week, or two weeks, or in a month. Since we’re adding millions of new photos a day, you might get a match in a few weeks even if you don’t right now.”
It’s unclear what Clearview’s accuracy and match rates are as of 2021.
Officers continued to use Clearview AI through at least Feb. 26, 2020, the date of the last of the responsive emails in the document.
It’s unclear if NYPD officers are still using Clearview. When reached for comment by BuzzFeed News, an NYPD spokesperson declined to answer specific questions. However, the relationship between Clearview and the NYPD appears to have remained friendly through at least February 2020.
In January 2020, NYPD officer Damon Gregar sent a copy of his own résumé to Ton-That.
“Hi, Hoan! Let me know if you receive this and what you think. Thanks so much,” Gregar wrote.
That same month, officer Emilio Gomez asked Clearview, “what are the fees to have full access to your software?”
The Clearview help account replied, “1 billion dollars.” ●
Ryan Mac and Brianna Sacks contributed reporting to this story.
This article has been updated to mention The Legal Aid Society, which litigated to get the documents in question, and confirm the identity of Rachel Richards.