Four Australian police forces have registered accounts with controversial facial recognition company Clearview AI, a client list obtained by BuzzFeed News reveals.
Clearview AI says its powerful and unprecedented facial recognition tool can be used to identify a person in almost any situation. It says it has amassed a database of billions of photos, scraped from Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and other websites. Using photos in the database, a stranger could find out your name and other personal details simply by scanning another photo of you.
BuzzFeed News has obtained internal data listing more than 2,200 law enforcement agencies, companies, and individuals around the world as Clearview AI clients, among them the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), department store Macy's, and a sovereign wealth fund in the United Arab Emirates.
The data indicates four of Australia’s law enforcement agencies have dozens of users between them registered with Clearview AI. Between the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and state forces in Queensland, Victoria and South Australia, police have run more than 1,000 searches.
The AFP initially denied using Clearview AI but now says it is doing some "further digging" following this report.
A 31-year-old Australian based in the US, Hoan Ton-That, is the CEO and founder of Clearview AI. He has made questionable — and sometimes straight-up incorrect — claims about the software’s accuracy and past success.
Until now, Australian police’s use of Clearview AI has not been public knowledge. Ton-That had claimed his software was being used in Australia, but most police forces either refused to comment, or flatly denied they used it.
The data obtained by BuzzFeed News includes information about how many users an organisation has, how many searches they have run, and when they last ran a search.
The most enthusiastic adopter of the technology among Australian law enforcement is apparently the Queensland Police Service (QPS), the data shows. More than 20 users within the QPS have run more than 900 searches. Roughly half of those users, and one-third of the searches, come from within the Queensland Homicide Investigation Unit. The most recent sign ups and searches are from February 2020.
The QPS did not respond to questions about its use of Clearview AI, or its relationship with the company. A spokesperson instead provided a general statement saying facial recognition is “one of many capabilities” available to law enforcement, and that the organisation does not comment on its methods.
The Australian Federal Police has publicly denied that it uses Clearview AI, including in a statement to BuzzFeed News, and has rejected several freedom of information requests for documents relating to the company.
But the records show that accounts associated with the AFP have run more than 100 searches, including as recently as in January 2020. The leaked data shows more than five people associated with the AFP have created accounts.
The AFP declined to comment further on Thursday without being provided the names associated with the accounts.
But on Friday, following publication of this report, Labor MP Mark Dreyfus asked AFP commissioner Reece Kershaw if the force used Clearview AI during a hearing of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.
Kershaw replied that he had asked the same question, and said he could not answer the question immediately, but was looking into it.
"I have had advice from my legal team who have advised me they need to do some further digging given the matters raised," he said.
South Australia Police also denied it uses Clearview AI, despite leaked data showing a number of users who have collectively run more than 15 searches. When contacted by BuzzFeed News, a senior constable claimed the police could not make inquiries without the raw data.
A spokeswoman later followed up by email, saying the department responsible for facial recognition searching had confirmed SA Police does not use Clearview AI.
“If you are not prepared to provide any further detailed information as requested we cannot assist you any further,” she wrote. She added that SA Police’s Financial and Cybercrime Investigation Branch had been informed of BuzzFeed News’ email describing the data.
Staff of Victoria Police have also signed up with Clearview AI. The data shows that more than five users have run more than 10 searches.
“We’re not using it in any sort of official capacity,” the spokeswoman said, denying knowledge of its use by anyone in the organisation. “We don’t have any evidence of it at this point.”
Victoria Police does use some facial recognition technology for investigative and intelligence gathering purposes, but does not comment on the specifics for security reasons, the spokeswoman said.
On Wednesday, Clearview AI told the Daily Beast that an intruder had “gained unauthorized access to its list” of customers.
Since the company’s existence was revealed in January by the New York Times and BuzzFeed News, ethical concerns have been raised about the software. Australia’s Privacy Commissioner launched an inquiry into its use in Australia and whether Australians’ information is in its database.
The tool has been used in law enforcement investigations in the US, BuzzFeed News has previously reported. Ton-That has claimed to be working with hundreds of law enforcement agencies.
Law enforcement officers are able to sign up for a free trial with Clearview AI using their official government email addresses. It is not available to the general public.
Australia has only limited regulation of facial recognition technology. In 2017, the states, territories and federal government struck a deal to create a massive database of federal government images from driver licences and passport photos.
However, the legislation allowing agencies to use the database for facial verification and identification has stalled in the federal parliament, following a highly unusual rebuke by the bipartisan intelligence and security committee, which was concerned about the privacy implications and lack of safeguards in the proposed law.
Asked if she was concerned that individual officers might be using the software without the knowledge of their superiors, Victoria Police’s spokeswoman said that anyone “doing the wrong thing in any capacity” would face consequences.
But she could not point to anything Victoria Police would consider its officers to have done wrong in this case. After all, the pictures in Clearview AI’s database were “all public on the Internet” anyway, she said.