Clearview AI Offered Free Trials To Police Around The World
Clearview AI Offered Free Trials To Police Around The World
According to internal company data reviewed by BuzzFeed News, law enforcement and government organizations from 24 countries outside the United States used a contentious facial recognition technology called Clearview AI.
This data, which is valid until February 2020, shows that nearly 14,000 searches were conducted using Clearview AI’s software by police departments, prosecutors’ offices, universities, and interior ministries from around the world. Officers in many law enforcement agencies, from Canada to Finland, used the software without the knowledge or permission of their superiors. After being questioned by BuzzFeed News, some organizations admitted to using the technology without leadership oversight.
In March, a BuzzFeed News investigation based on Clearview AI’s own internal data revealed how the New York–based startup distributed its facial recognition tool to thousands of officers and employees at over 1,800 US taxpayer-funded entities by marketing free trials for its mobile app or desktop software. Clearview claims that its software is more accurate than other facial recognition technologies because it was trained on a database of over 3 billion images scraped from websites and social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
Clearview allows law enforcement officers to take a photo of a suspect or person of interest, run it through the software, and receive possible matches for that individual in seconds. Clearview claims that its app is 100% accurate in documents provided to law enforcement officials, but BuzzFeed News has seen the software misidentify people, highlighting a larger issue with facial recognition technologies.
According to new reporting and data reviewed by BuzzFeed News, Clearview AI took its controversial US marketing playbook global, offering free trials to employees at law enforcement agencies in Australia, Brazil, and the United Kingdom.
To accompany this story, BuzzFeed News has created a searchable table of 88 international government-affiliated and taxpayer-funded agencies and organizations identified in Clearview’s data as having employees who used or tested the company’s facial recognition service prior to February 2020.
Some of those entities were located in countries where the use of Clearview is now considered “illegal.” Following an investigation, Canada’s data privacy commissioner ruled in February 2021 that Clearview had “violated federal and provincial privacy laws”; the company was advised to stop offering its services to Canadian clients, stop collecting images of Canadians, and delete all previously collected images and biometrics of people in the country.
Authorities in the European Union are investigating whether Clearview’s use violated the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a set of broad online privacy laws that requires companies processing personal data to obtain people’s informed consent. The Dutch Data Protection Authority told BuzzFeed News that the use of Clearview by police agencies was “unlikely,” while France’s National Commission for Informatics and Freedoms said it had received “several complaints” about Clearview, which are “currently being investigated.” One Hamburg regulator has already ruled that the company’s practices are in violation of the GDPR and ordered it to delete information on a German citizen.
Despite the fact that Clearview is used in at least a dozen other countries, CEO Hoan Ton-That insists that the company’s primary market is the United States.
“While there has been tremendous demand for our service from around the world,” he said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “Clearview AI is primarily focused on providing our service to law enforcement and government agencies in the United States.” “Other countries have expressed a desperate need for our technology because they know it can aid in the investigation of transnational crimes such as money laundering, financial fraud, romance scams, human trafficking, and crimes against children.”
Ton-That claimed in the same statement that there are “inaccuracies contained in BuzzFeed’s assertions.” He declined to elaborate and did not respond to a detailed list of questions based on reporting for this story.
Clearview AI has developed and marketed a powerful facial recognition tool to police departments and government agencies. The company has never revealed which entities have used its facial recognition software, but a confidential source provided BuzzFeed News with data that appeared to be a list of agencies and companies whose employees have tested or actively used its technology.
We created a searchable database of internationally based taxpayer-funded entities, including law enforcement agencies, prosecutor’s offices, universities, and interior ministries, using that data, as well as public records and interviews. We only included agencies where at least one associated individual ran at least one facial recognition scan as of February 2020, according to the data.
There are limitations to the database. Clearview has not verified or denied the underlying data, which begins in 2018 and ends in February 2020, so it does not account for any activity after that time or for any additional organizations that may have begun using Clearview after February 2020.
Not all searches were related to an investigation, and some agencies informed us that their employees had simply conducted test searches to see how well the technology worked. BuzzFeed News developed search ranges based on data showing how many times people at a given organization ran photos through Clearview.
We discovered inaccuracies in the data, such as organizations with misspelled or incomplete names, and we worked to resolve those issues as soon as they could be confirmed. If we couldn’t confirm an entity’s existence, we removed it.
BuzzFeed News allowed each agency or organization in this database to comment on whether they had used Clearview’s technology and whether the software had resulted in any arrests.
This database contains the following 88 entities:
36 companies said they had employees who used or experimented with Clearview AI.
Officials at nine of those organizations said they were unaware that their employees had signed up for free trials until they were prompted to look by BuzzFeed News or our reporting partners.
Officials from three other organizations initially denied that their employees had used Clearview, but it was later determined that some of them had.
Ten organizations refused to answer questions about whether their employees had used Clearview.
Clearview was not used by 12 organizations.
Requests for comment from 30 organizations went unanswered.
The table includes responses from the agencies, including whether they denied using Clearview’s technology or did not respond to requests for comment.
The mere presence of an agency on the list does not imply that BuzzFeed News was able to confirm that it used the tool or that its officials approved its employees’ use of Clearview.
By searching this database, you acknowledge that you are aware of its limitations.
Clearview had planned to pursue “rapid international expansion” into at least 22 countries, according to a 2019 internal document obtained by BuzzFeed News. However, the company’s strategy appeared to have shifted by February 2020. Ton-That told BuzzFeed News at the time, “Clearview is focused on doing business in the United States and Canada.”
Two weeks later, in an interview with PBS, he clarified that Clearview would never sell its technology to countries that are “very hostile to the US,” naming China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea as examples.
Since then, Clearview has been the subject of extensive media scrutiny as well as numerous government investigations. Following earlier BuzzFeed News reporting that private companies and public organizations had conducted Clearview searches in the United Kingdom and Australia, privacy commissioners in both countries launched a joint investigation into the company’s use of personal data in July. According to the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office, the investigation is still ongoing, and “no further comment will be made until it is concluded,” according to BuzzFeed News.
Clearview was also regulated by Canadian authorities after the Toronto Star, in collaboration with BuzzFeed News, reported on the widespread use of the company’s software in the country. In February 2020, federal and provincial Canadian privacy commissioners launched an investigation into Clearview, concluding that it was a “clear violation of Canadians’ privacy rights.”
These bodies officially declared Clearview’s practices in the country illegal earlier this year, and recommended that the company stop offering its technology to Canadian clients. According to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Clearview disagreed with the investigation’s findings and showed no willingness to follow the other recommendations.
Prior to that declaration, employees from at least 41 Canadian government entities — the most of any country outside the United States — were listed in internal data as having used Clearview. These agencies ranged from police departments in midsize cities like Timmins, a 41,000-person city where officers conducted more than 120 searches, to major metropolitan law enforcement agencies like the Toronto Police Service, which conducted more than 3,400 searches as of February 2020, according to the data.
There were a lot of entities that used Clearview AI.
A Timmins Police Service spokesperson acknowledged that the department had used Clearview, but stated that no arrests had ever been made as a result of a search using the technology. Multiple requests for comment were not returned by the Toronto Police Service.
According to Clearview data, usage was not limited to police departments. The Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice’s public prosecutions office