EVANSVILLE — If you’ve ever posted a selfie to social media, your face’s biometric data is likely accessible to Evansville police, who have quietly employed powerful facial recognition technology on a regular basis for at least the past year.

According to Police Chief Billy Bolin and documents reviewed by the Courier & Press, the Evansville Police Department routinely utilizes facial recognition services provided by the controversial, New York-based company Clearview AI to investigate an assortment of crimes.

“It’s a really good tool that is really working.

We’ve had it for about a year, and our detectives love it and are encouraging us to keep using it.”

While the EPD did publicly disclose its interest in acquiring such technology in January 2020, police said little – to the public or to local officials – when they actually purchased Clearview AI software licenses in August 2020.

The company’s facial recognition software suite, which is used by hundreds of law enforcement agencies across multiple countries, is regarded as one of the most powerful in the world. Some jurisdictions, such as New Jersey, have banned Clearview AI outright, citing privacy concerns and the company’s data harvesting practices.

And yet, few Evansville officials said they had knowledge it had been deployed by the EPD.

Bolin said his detectives value Clearview AI for its ability to quickly and accurately generate useful leads from nothing more than an average selfie or surveillance footage. The software compares images uploaded by the police to a database of billions of images scraped from public websites and social media accounts.

“It’s a really good tool that is really working,” Bolin said. “We’ve had it for about a year, and our detectives love it and are encouraging us to keep using it.”

Vanderburgh County Sheriff Noah Robinson said his detectives have had the EPD run Clearview AI searches on their behalf. He echoed Bolin’s sentiment, saying the software is an important tool for law enforcement.

“The technology that Clearview is using is another investigatory resource,” Robinson said. “I don’t typically worry about using computer technology that speeds up what a human can already do.”

Local officials had limited knowledge of Clearview AI use

The decision by Evansville police to adopt facial recognition technology received almost no public debate or discussion, according to public meeting minutes and recordings reviewed by the Courier & Press. The EPD first purchased a Clearview AI software license in August 2020 for $2,000.

Several local officials, including the county’s top public defender, said they were unaware Evansville police had access to facial recognition technology until the Courier & Press reached out for comment.

• “Was not aware that EPD was using this technology in their investigations,” Vanderburgh County Chief Public Defender Steve Owens wrote in an email.
• “I have not been briefed,” City Councilman Alex Burton, D-Fourth Ward, wrote in response to questions about his knowledge of the EPD’s use of Clearview AI. “I have full confidence in Bolin (and) the Merit Commission.”
• “I honestly don’t know much about any of this, but would be happy to inquire,” City Councilman Ben Trockman, D-First Ward, wrote in an email.

And, Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Diana Moers said she was not very familiar with the technology and was unsure if Clearview AI results had ever been featured in criminal proceedings.

The EPD’s use of facial recognition technology, or the revelation that it routinely utilizes Clearview AI, also has not been previously reported by local media.

Clearview AI’s practices have garnered fierce criticism from an array of data privacy advocates, politicians and lawyers. The company settled multiple high-profile lawsuits in recent years and is currently defending itself against accusations that its software led to a wrongful arrest.

The company’s most controversial practice is also what makes it so attractive to law enforcement: its “faceprint” database of 30 billion images.

According to company records, Clearview AI scraped the images – selfies and all – from websites such as Facebook and payment service apps such as Venmo. The company did not gain the express consent of users when it downloaded their public images and scanned them for biometric data.

Clearview AI founder Hoan Ton-That, a native of Australia, has publicly stated the company’s practices are protected by the First Amendment and U.S. copyright law.

By using Clearview AI’s software, Evansville police leverage its massive database of faces to generate leads and identify individuals, persons of interest and suspects, according to Bolin.

“We’re solving a ton of shoplifting reports from using this technology set,” Bolin said.

Patrol officers can also use Clearview AI to verify a person’s identity in real time using the software’s mobile application.

“They can take a picture with their phone of the person while they’re standing there, enter it into this, and basically what it’s doing is it’s pulling pictures from any open source,” Bolin explained. “Anything that’s open in the public domain is where it’s matching up photos.”

In other cities, law enforcement’s use of facial recognition technology has generated intense debate among local officials and the public. In West Lafayette, Indiana, for example, city council members attempted to ban police from using tools like Clearview AI in most circumstances.

The ordinance narrowly failed to pass, but it sparked a broader local conversation about the privacy, ethical and legal concerns surrounding law enforcement use of facial recognition technology.

During a sit-down interview with the Courier & Press, Bolin said he understands the privacy concerns surrounding Clearview AI, but in his view, law enforcement’s primary job is to solve crimes and Clearview AI is a tool to further that effort.

“As long as it’s legally allowable, we’re going to utilize it,” Bolin said. “My concern is solving crime; I’ll let everybody else worry about the other concerns – that’s not mine.”

This is how Clearview AI works

All facial-recognition technology compares one image’s characteristics against a database of images and their unique biometric markers, such as distinct measurements between a person’s eyes or the angle of their jawline.

Programs like Clearview AI use hundreds of markers to identify a person’s face.

Most facial recognition technology providers require police departments to build their own internal database of comparison images from mugshots or driver’s license photos. Some facial recognition service providers refuse to work with law enforcement.

But not Clearview AI. The company offers both its image-matching algorithm and its faceprint database to law enforcement customers, including the EPD and the Indiana State Police, which became the company’s first paying customer several years ago.

Nathan Wessler, the deputy director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said he has “tremendous concerns” about Clearview AI’s database.

“Clearview has done this totally different thing, which is to scrape billions of photos of people off the Internet and build this gargantuan matching database,” Wessler told the Courier & Press. “Their goal is to be able to identify 95% of humans on Earth in a very short timeframe.”

Documents Clearview AI sent to the EPD explain how its search function works.

• “When you upload a photo to Clearview, our software analyzes the hundreds of features that make up the face and search for a matching face in our image database,” a Clearview FAQ document states. “Whether the software finds no results, similar results, or possible results is determined by how closely the facial features match those of another face in our database.”

When detectives or officers upload an image of a person’s face to Clearview AI’s software, they generally receive a list of results showing other photos in which the individual appears online along with links to where those images are hosted.

Clearview AI uses a “delta number” to relay the algorithm’s level of confidence that the photos are, in fact, of the same person.

“It’s just a nice tool to have in our toolbox to use,” Bolin said. “It seems to be highly successful for us.”

Critics, including Wessler, say Clearview AI’s true accuracy is hard to determine without rigorous, independent testing. Wessler and others have also raised concerns about how Clearview AI acquired the billions of images in its database and question whether law enforcement should have access to such immensely powerful tools without outside oversight.

Can you ‘delist’ yourself from Clearview AI?

The company says it has the right to log any image on a public website into its database, meaning that if you have a public social media account, your faceprint could be in Clearview AI’s database. But what if you want to remove your data from Clearview AI? The company has a tool to do just that, with a major caveat.

Using Clearview AI’s “deindex request” page, the public can request that Clearview AI remove a certain webpage from its database. However, the company will only agree to remove images hosted on web pages that are no longer public.

For example, if you had a public Facebook account but have since taken it private, you can ask Clearview AI to remove the profile’s photos from its database.

But, if the photos in question are featured on a public webpage, there are few methods outside of legal action at the public’s disposal to have the images delisted from Clearview’s database.

“This tool will not remove URLs from Clearview which are currently active and public,” the Clearview AI website states. “If there is a public image or web page that you want excluded, then take it down yourself (or ask the webmaster or publisher to take it down).”

Attorney: Clearview AI provided ‘unscientific’ and ‘unreliable’ reports to Evansville police

Along with the FAQ sheet, Clearview AI also provided the EPD with an “Accuracy Test Report,” according to public records. The document, which is dated October 2019, claims an independent review panel determined Clearview AI to be “100% accurate” across “all racial & demographic groups.”

Wessler, who reviewed the accuracy report through his work with the ACLU, said the study Evansville police received was “completely unscientific and completely unreliable.”

“Their methodology made no sense as a test of the system,” Wessler said. “It’s an incredibly misleading claim.”

The test cited in the report used Clearview AI’s image-matching algorithm to compare “headshots” from three government legislatures against its database and returned “instant and accurate matches for every one of the 834 federal and state legislators in the test cohort,” the documents state.

But these were well-framed, well-lit, professionally taken photographs. Not the types of images police would typically upload to the Clearview AI system.

“It says nothing about how this algorithm performs in real-world use by police, where they’re inputting probe photos of a huge range of qualities,” Wessler said. “Every permutation of different kinds of poor image quality has a big effect on accuracy.”

Bolin said he never saw the Accuracy Test Report and wasn’t familiar with its claims. The Clearview FAQ document the company provided to the EPD claims its software has a “98.6%” accuracy rate – another figure experts view with suspicion.

“I wouldn’t have thought it was 100% accurate,” Bolin said in response to questions about Clearview AI’s accuracy claims. “But I do think it works most of the time.”

You won’t find Clearview AI mentioned in many court records

Clearview AI’s own guidelines caution police against using the software’s results as evidence in court:

• “Clearview AI, Inc. makes no guarantees as to the accuracy of its search identification software,” the Clearview FAQ document states. “Clearview AI is neither designed nor intended to be used as a single-source system for establishing the identity of an individual.”

It’s unclear how much weight EPD detectives give Clearview AI reports when it comes time to write a probable cause affidavit or make an arrest, because detectives do not cite the software by name in court records or police reports, according to Bolin.

“In our reports, we’ll say an ‘investigative tool that provides a lead or information,’” Bolin said, referring to the terminology detectives use to describe Clearview AI results in arrest affidavits without disclosing that Clearview AI was used.

Owens, the county’s chief public defender, said he found this practice of referring to facial recognition technology with euphemisms to be problematic, because it would complicate efforts by defense attorneys to challenge the accuracy of the software’s results.

“Obviously, if you don’t want to be forced to address those issues, you don’t disclose that,” Owens said. “Or you hide it by referring to it as a ‘reliable source.’” Moers, the county’s top prosecutor, said she was not aware of Clearview AI results being used as evidence in court or such results appearing in arrest affidavits.

“To my knowledge, it hasn’t come up really in court,” Moers said. “That’s not saying that, you know, it hasn’t come up in some cases. (But) I’m not aware of that.”

City officials had little knowledge or oversight

City Councilman Zachary Heronemus, D-Third Ward, told the Courier & Press he was not briefed by EPD officials about their decision to begin deploying facial recognition technology from the outset, nor was he aware of the EPD discussing the issue with the city council in general.

Aside from statewide and national legal precedents governing how police can investigate crimes, there is no outside body governing how Evansville police can leverage facial recognition technology or tools powered by artificial intelligence.

Heronemus did discuss Clearview AI use with EPD Assistant Chief Phil Smith and at least one EPD sergeant after the Courier & Press forwarded him documents related to Clearview AI use in Evansville. Those conversations eased some of his hesitations about the software.

“Surface level, there are concerns that this is not a nationally certified program like other technologies that are deployed,” Heronemus said. “Obviously, we want them (the EPD) to have the tools necessary to do what’s best for our community and best from a law enforcement and public safety standpoint. And the sergeant that I spoke with said it’s been a pretty good tool for them.”

Heronmeus said he felt comfortable that Evansville police were using Clearview AI responsibly, as did Burton, who represents Evansville’s Fourth Ward. At the same time, Heronmeus did note that he has concerns about Clearview AI’s accuracy and the lack of outside oversight.

“My main concern is that it just needs to be independently tested and made sure that, you know, the rate of error can be minimized as much as possible,” Heronmeus said.

It remains publicly unclear how Clearview AI results obtained by the EPD and the Vanderburgh County Sheriff ’s Office make their way into criminal proceedings, despite the apparent routine use of the software.

Heronmeus said law enforcement’s use of advanced, AI-powered technology could be an issue the city council publicly discusses in the future.

But, for the time being, the EPD will get to determine when, where and how it deploys facial recognition technology. To Wessler, that is a potential liability.

“Bad uses of this technology can really get out of hand, especially when there’s secrecy because it means you don’t have any checks from the judiciary or from elected officials or from the community on its use,” Wessler said. “And so police just get to kind of make up the rules as they go along without any input from anyone else who might urge them to take more care.”

Both Bolin and Robinson insist Clearview AI is being used responsibly.

“I do see this being kind of the wave of the future, and it probably will change the future of law enforcement,” Bolin said. “There are people that fear the ‘Big Brother’ is watching every move they make, and I could see both sides. But I’m one that falls on the, ‘I’ll take my safety and know that we’re trying to catch the bad guys’ — that’s kind of where I fall.”
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