Despite Concerns, Law Enforcement Use of Facial Recognition Expands in South Florida

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Rape, murder, armed robbery. Miami Police say they’ve made arrests in those violent crimes and in property crimes using a controversial facial recognition program, Clearview AI.

The department says the technology has helped them to identify 28 people linked to crimes.

“It’s really being a game changer for us,” said Miami Police Assistant Chief Armando Aguilar. 

The department started using the free-trial version of the program in the spring and has since moved forward with a one-year contract worth $12,000.

“While we live in a society where video seems to be everywhere, many times the challenge of video is to have a photo or a video of a suspect but not knowing who the suspect is. This has helped us go over that barrier,” Aguilar said.

Clearview is built out of a database of 3 billion pictures that people put online themselves like Facebook, Instagram, Venmo and LinkedIn. The company’s software allows users, including law enforcement agencies, to match people’s facial features to the pictures in the database.

But recently, major companies like IBM, Microsoft and Amazon announced they will stop selling facial recognition technology to police departments citing privacy concerns and racial disparities.

“I think it’s disgraceful frankly for police departments to say well if Amazon and Microsoft and IBM won’t sell me facial recognition, let’s find a company who will,” said Chad Marlow, from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Marlow points to multiple studies finding the technology could lead to the wrong person, more often if it’s a person of color.

“It concerns me as we’re doing an interview that there are police departments in South Florida who have all this information but we don’t care. We’re going to go ahead anyway,” Marlow said.

Despite those concerns, NBC 6 Investigators found multiple law enforcement agencies already use Clearview.

Four area departments have signed contracts with Clearview: Miami-Dade, Miami, Coral Springs and Broward Sheriff’s Office. Other agencies including Miramar, Pembroke Pines and Fort Lauderdale participated in the free trial but say they do not have contracts.

Records obtained by NBC 6 Investigators show Coral Springs Police signed a $5,000 contract for eight officers to use in the department. In the contract, it is stated that Clearview “makes no guarantees as to the accuracy of its search-identification software” and the program “is neither designed nor intended to be used as a single-source system for establishing the identity of an individual.” Therefore, it is “not designed or intended to be used as evidence in a court of law.” The department declined to discuss its use of the technology on camera.

BSO has a $15,000 contract scheduled until August while MDPD told us they are still finalizing the details of their contract. Both departments declined our requests for an on camera interview.

Aguilar says it’s important to be transparent about the use of this type of technology.

“This technology in the wrong hands is certainly very dangerous and that’s why we feel we went through great lengths, probably greater than any law enforcement agency,” Aguilar said, adding the department held virtual community meetings and sought feedback from advocacy groups before moving forward with a contract.

“We understand that the technology, such a facial recognition technology, has many privacy implications that worry people. They want to make sure we are going to be responsible stewards of their information. So we felt the way to go about that was to be as open and transparent as we could,” he said.

For Aguilar, concerns about racial and gender bias are “very real” but he says his department has protections in place to prevent the wrong person being arrested.

“We ensure that our officers, our detectives, are aware of those algorithms biases, and we build that into the policy to ensure that our officers don’t make an arrest based solely into recognition identification,” he said.

Aguilar says this means officers need additional evidence like a witness or DNA to make an arrest. The department’s policy requires keeping a log documenting all facial recognition searches and conducting monthly audits. It also states that “a positive facial recognition search result alone does not constitute probable cause of an arrest.”

In an email, Clearview’s CEO Hon Ton-That said: “Unlike other facial recognition algorithms, which have misidentified people of color, an independent study indicates that Clearview AI has no racial bias. As a person of mixed race, this is especially important to me. We are very encouraged that our technology has proven accurate in the field and has helped prevent the wrongful identification of people of color.” 

The company provided a copy of the 2019 independent study Ton-That mentioned in his statement, which found no incorrect matches across all racial and demographic groups that were sampled. Critics including the ACLU have questioned its findings.

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