Feb 28, 2020

    More Than A Dozen Organizations From The Met Police To J.K. Rowling’s Foundation Have Tried Clearview AI’s Facial Recognition Tech

    Exclusive: The UK National Crime Agency and a number of police forces across England, as well as several private investment firms, have registered users with facial recognition software company Clearview AI.

    by ,
    Kirsty O'Connor / PA

    The National Crime Agency and Metropolitan Police are among a number of leading organisations across the UK that have registered users with controversial facial recognition technology firm Clearview AI, according to documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News.

    The technology also had users at a number of other police forces, private investment firms, the Ministry of Defence, and a charity founded by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, the data shows.

    Clearview AI claims to have amassed a database of more than three billion photos — scraped from Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and other websites — to create a facial recognition tool that it claims is highly accurate, though it has yet to independently verify those claims. It has long drawn a veil over itself and its operations.

    The internal documents and data seen by BuzzFeed News indicates that several users at the National Crime Agency (NCA) have carried out a total of more than 500 searches using Clearview AI between October last year and this month, while a number of users at the Met Police have run more than 170 searches between them since December, according to the data.

    A spokesperson for the Met Police told us that Clearview AI was not being used with its new “live facial recognition” tool, which was announced in January, prompting concerns at the time from privacy campaigners. The force would not respond to further questions about why so many Clearview searches had been carried out by users within the Met, saying it could neither “confirm nor deny” using the software.

    The NCA’s deputy director of investigations Craig Naylor said: “The NCA deploys numerous specialist capabilities to track down online offenders who cause serious harm to members of the public, but for operational reasons we do not routinely confirm or deny the use of specific investigative tools or techniques.”

    The data seen by BuzzFeed News lists about 2,900 institutions from around the world and includes details such as the number of accounts associated with an organisation, the number of log-ins, the number of searches, and the date of the last search. Some of the organisations on the list did not have log-ins or did not run searches, and BuzzFeed News is only disclosing UK and Irish entities that have established at least one account and performed at least one search.

    In reply to previous questions about the data, Clearview attorney Tor Ekeland said: "There are numerous inaccuracies in this illegally obtained information. As there is an ongoing Federal investigation, we have no further comment."

    Accounts associated with Northamptonshire Police have run more than 160 searches with Clearview AI since December, according to the documents. The force declined to comment when asked about its relationship with Clearview AI.

    Other police forces that have used the technology include North Yorkshire Police, Suffolk Constabulary, Surrey Police, and Hampshire Police; users at these forces have made more than 140 searches between them based on the list.

    Surrey Police said it had not procured the services of Clearview AI but had used the technology on a “small number of occasions on a trial basis”.

    A spokesperson for Hampshire Police said: “As a force, we do not use live facial recognition technology. We do have access to a facial search facility within the Police National Database. From our enquiries, Clearview AI facial recognition has not been used for operational purposes.”

    A Suffolk Constabulary spokesperson said: “The constabulary has no imminent plans to implement such technology. However, we remain open-minded to the use of technology to support policing activities and will review the outcomes of any trials conducted before making a final decision on viability.”

    AMR ALFIKY / The New York Times / Redux

    Clearview AI CEO Hoan Ton-That in New York, Jan. 10, 2019.

    Ireland’s national police service also had registered users who ran searches under Clearview dozens of times in recent months, according to the data. Both this organisation and North Yorkshire Police did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.

    A number of Clearview searches have been made under an account registered to the Ministry of Defence between November last year and this month. Sources at the department said they were unaware of the use of such technology within the MoD. The ministry declined to comment on the record.

    The data indicates that individuals at a number of financial services and investment firms have registered accounts with Clearview AI. Users at one firm, RIT Capital Partners, have run over 350 searches since March last year.

    The company told BuzzFeed News it was testing the product before making a “very small” investment in Clearview AI. A spokesperson said: “RIT Capital Partners is not a client of Clearview AI and does not use Clearview’s product. The app was made available to one individual at RIT for restricted technical testing and due diligence purposes as part of a very small minority investment the company made into Clearview AI.”

    Other private companies include Aon, a professional services firm where several users collectively made more than 50 searches, and banking firm Standard Chartered, where an account associated with the company ran more than 40 searches. Both firms declined to provide a comment on the record.

    It also emerged that Lumos, the children’s charity set up by J.K. Rowling, ran several searches through Clearview in June last year. The charity told BuzzFeed News that a staff member had tried out the software once at an event and Clearview was not being used by Lumos in its work.

    A spokesperson for Lumos said: “A member of Lumos staff attended an anti-trafficking event last year to which a number of NGOs were invited as well as a representative from Clearview AI.

    “During the event the representative from Clearview AI demonstrated the software which we understand was being used in the US by law enforcement to tackle child exploitation.

    “Lumos was set up with a free account for demonstration purposes. The software is of no relevance or application to Lumos’ work in developing family support and reforming care systems. We have not used and have no intention of using the software in any of our work.”

    A number of Clearview searches were also run under an account associated with the University of Birmingham last summer. A university spokesperson said: “The university takes the safety and privacy of staff and students very seriously and does not have any relationship with this company.”


    Emily Ashton is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

    Contact Emily Ashton at emily.ashton@buzzfeed.com.

    Ryan Mac is a senior tech reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

    Contact Ryan Mac at ryan.mac@buzzfeed.com.

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