Rye Police to Use Controversial Facial Recognition Technology

The company behind the technology, Clearview AI, boasts a 98.6 percent accuracy rate matching images from surveillance cameras or smartphones

Rye police plan to begin using a facial recognition tool to identify criminals. Photo courtesy Rye PD
Published May 16, 2024 11:11 PM
4 min read

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Rye City Police will soon be identifying possible criminal suspects with the help of a sometimes controversial, but potentially useful, facial recognition technology.

The company behind the technology, Clearview AI, boasts a 98.6 percent accuracy rate matching images from surveillance cameras or smartphones with people’s public online footprints, including websites like Venmo, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook.

Clearview AI offers “the largest known database of 40+ billion facial images sourced from public-only web sources including news media, mugshot websites, public social media, and other open sources,” the company’s website states.

Rye Public Safety Commissioner Michael Kopy said he has approved the $4,000-$5,000 expenditure, which will allow police to compare faces captured on camera with Clearview AI’s database, a resource that spans “Facebook to mugshots and anything in between.”

City Manager Greg Usry signed off on the purchase as well. It does not require approval by the City Council.

Kopy called it a “generic investigative tool” and could see it being used to solve “almost any crime.”

He said the existing city closed-circuit television cameras are “minimal” and not actively monitored by police. Facial recognition, however, could be especially useful on home surveillance footage or private businesses that supply their surveillance footage to police as part of an investigation.

Kopy said private businesses often used similar software to identify repeat shoplifters.

The Innocence Project’s strategic litigation attorney, Mitha Nandagopalan, is critical of the technology, saying the government has not validated or verified the accuracy of the technology, and law enforcement is not required to report on how they use it.

Often the accuracy figures that facial technology businesses use to market themselves are the results of internal tests, Nandagopalan said.

A standardized government assessment of facial recognition algorithms done by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 2021 ranked Clearview AI highest, with a 99.9 percent accuracy, but only used mugshots and images from visa kiosks, Nandagopalan said. The test did not include the grainy low- quality images from closed circuit TV that are more commonly used as probe images, Nandagopalan said.

“In machine-learning evidence, I don’t think we’re seeing the kind of scrutiny that we need,” Nandagopalan said.

Nandagopalan is concerned that local police could use the technology without having to meet any conditions for running a search. “Often times the perceived sophistication of the technology gives officers a misplaced feeling of safety and over-confidence in the accuracy of its results,” Nandagopalan said.

“I don’t think we should accept that privacy doesn’t exist anymore,” Nandagopalan said.

Clearview AI, a U.S.-based private company, has been banned from selling its database to private companies since a class-action lawsuit brought by the ACLU in Illinois, where a biometric protection law is among the strictest in the country. It, along with other facial recognition technologies, has been banned in San Francisco, Seattle and Portland.

Kopy said a purchase order for the Clearview AI license was expected to be signed before June 30. Usry, the city manager, said, “I hope it gives residents some comfort that their Ring camera or footage from their car along with this resource could be used to catch someone behind a break-in.”

Nationwide, the technology has been associated with eight false arrests publicly, a figure Usry and Kopy said was too small to be of consequence in a community like Rye.

In those cases, a Clearview AI identification was the only piece of evidence that led to the arrest of the innocent suspects, and the suspects were disproportionately people of color.

Kopy said using only a Clearview identification would “certainly never be the case” for any arrests in Rye, and any use of the technology would be cited in a Police report.

“It’s up to the Detective Lieutenant to use this in relation to any crimes, and it could definitely be part of how he may make an arrest,” he said.

Kopy became familiar with the tool through the New York Police Department’s Real Time Crime Unit, which was among the first in the country to test the technology in 2018.

Though the technology was used more than 11,000 times by NYPD officers — including to catch a pedophile accountant, identify sex trafficking victims, and identify two on-duty police officers drinking on the job — a contract between Clearview and the NYPD was never signed. Senior New York City officials were concerned with the public’s perception of the technology, according to The New York Times.

The NYPD instituted facial recognition guidelines in October 2023 that prevent the use of the tool, only allowing for photos from investigations to be compared to a database of arrest and mug shots.

Rye City Police are the latest in a string of law enforcement agencies to use the technology, including the FBI, Department of Justice, DEA, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It’s also been used by the Ukrainian army to help identify Russian operatives and was used to identify rioters at the Capitol on Jan. 6, the company states on its website.

The company was initially financed with $200,000 from Silicon Valley celebrity and Trump megadonor Peter Thiel.

It’s not the first time that Rye Police have used the tool. A database of Clearview AI searches published by BuzzFeed News found that emails linked to Rye City Police were associated with between 50 and 100 searches between 2018 and February 2020.

Mamaroneck, Larchmont, Harrison, and Port Chester police, by contrast, were not present in that database, though 101 to 500 searches were attributed to Greenwich Police over that same period.

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