Thousands of US police officers and public servants have reportedly used Clearview's controversial facial recognition tech without approval

  • Clearview has used free trials to promote its facial recognition tech to police and government workers.
  • In some cases, police departments weren’t aware that their officers were using the technology.
  • Clearview developed its database by scraping people’s social media photos without permission.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Over 7,000 police officers and public servants in the US have been using or testing Clearview AI’s facial recognition software without authorization from their departments, according to a report from BuzzFeed News.

The outlet reviewed data and found that those individuals were taking advantage of the tool through free trials that Clearview sent to them. Clearview’s marketing strategy included distributing free trials to email addresses of not only agencies but to individual employees. Officers and public employees would then use it, without their superiors knowing in some cases, running 340,000 searches between the summer of 2019 and February 2020, according to the report.

BuzzFeed contacted the agencies involved, asking about their employees’ use of the facial recognition software, only for management to respond that they did not give approval for their officers to use the tool. About 70 law enforcement and public officials at first denied that their employees were using Clearview’s software, but after checking with personnel, discovered that some were.

“Absent of your inquiry, we never would have known about it,” a California police captain told Buzzfeed. 

Read more: Why students and privacy activists say remote-testing software heightens anxiety and sets ‘dangerous’ expectations

Employees with the US Customs and Border Protection ran 7,500 searches using Clearview’s software as of early 2020, BuzzFeed reports. At the time, the agency did not have a contract with Clearview.

The New York Police Department, the US Justice Department, and the US Department of Defense are among the agencies whose officers have used the software through the free trials. Individuals at public schools and personnel in the US Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, and the Marines have also used the software through the free trials, according to BuzzFeed’s investigation.

The Peter Thiel-backed startup was founded in 2017 and has developed its database of faces by scraping people’s social media photos without their permission. It has attracted controversy from civil rights groups and privacy experts because of law enforcement’s involvement with the software. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for example, signed a contract with Clearview in August 2020 worth $224,000. 

Google, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn have sent Clearview cease-and-desist letters in the past over the startup’s data scraping, but Clearview maintains that it is operating within the confines of the law.

Clearview did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

You can read the full report on Buzzfeed News here.

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