Australian police forces have previously denied using controversial facial recognition software, Clearview AI, but a new Buzzfeed report suggests employees within the organisations have undertaken thousands of searches using the software.
According to internal Clearview AI data obtained by Buzzfeed News, four Australian police forces are alleged to have searched the Clearview AI database. The Australian Federal Police (AFP) as well as state police forces from Queensland, Victoria and South Australia have reportedly run more than 1,000 searches.
Concerns regarding Clearview AI's technology first reared after a New York Times report revealed how far-reaching the software had become. With a database of three billion images scraped from social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Venmo, Clearview is able to match a single image to the identity of those it holds.
The man behind it is an Australian app developer, Hoan Ton-That, who's also responsible for HappyAppy and ViddyHo, apps containing phishing features. After investments from wealthy politicians and business people in the U.S., including a PayPal co-founder, Ton-That began work on creating Clearview AI.
Clearview is not available to the general public but it offers free trials to law enforcement officers who can sign up using their official government email addresses.
Gizmodo Australia has contacted the AFP, Queensland, Victorian and South Australian police forces to confirm how many times it was used and under what circumstances.
South Australia Police denied the use of Clearview AI in their facial recognition department. Gizmodo Australia is seeking clarity if the software could be used by individual officers. "Our information is that the location within SAPOL which is responsible for facial recognition searching has confirmed that they do not use Clearview AI," a spokesperson for South Australia Police said in an email to Gizmodo Australia.
Gizmodo Australia asked the AFP if it could confirm whether any AFP email addresses had been used to sign up for Clearview access and whether they'd conducted any searches. It said it did not have that information but had requested it from Clearview.
"The AFP requested the names associated with the accounts registered using AFP email addresses, but these have not been provided. Without this information, the AFP is not in a position to provide further information or comment," an AFP spokesperson said to Gizmodo Australia in an email.
Victoria Police declined to confirm whether it was using the Clearview software or not in a statement to Gizmodo Australia but admitted it was utilising facial recognition technology more broadly.
"Victoria Police utilises facial recognition technology for investigative and intelligence gathering purposes. For security reasons, Victoria Police does not comment on the specifics of the technology," a Victoria Police spokesperson said in an email to Gizmodo Australia.
Queensland Police did not respond to Buzzfeed's request for comment nor Gizmodo Australia's.
In January 2020, Gizmodo Australia contacted the AFP to see if the agency had email contact with Clearview between 2016 and 2020, which it confirmed it did not. Business Insider Australia also filed FOI requests to the AFP and Department of Home Affairs to determine whether they had been using the software and whether it had any correspondence containing mentions of Clearview AI or its developer, Hoan Thon-That. AFP is yet to respond to the request.
The report from Buzzfeed News, states the AFP had run more than 100 searches on the system.
"[The AFP] declined to comment on why Clearview's records show that employees associated with the organisation have run more than 100 searches — some as recently as January 2020," the report said.
It comes just a day after the controversial company admitted it'd faced a data breach where its internal client list and the number of database searches performed by each client was accessed by an unidentified intruder who had gained "unauthorised access."
"Unfortunately, data breaches are part of life in the 21st century. Our servers were never accessed. We patched the flaw, and continue to work to strengthen our security," Clearview's attorney Tor Ekeland said in a statement to Gizmodo.
Last week the New York Times revealed that an Australian startup had developed an alarming facial recognition app that's being used by hundreds of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and Canada. While the app isn't public, that doesn't rule out the potential for other agencies to be using it. As it turns out, the Australia Federal Police (AFP) apparently isn't one of them.
While Clearview's facial recognition database is cause for concern, the Australian government has been quietly looking into developing a repository its own, using images from official sources such as identification cards.
In October 2019, a parliamentary committee tabled a bill that would pave the way for a government-ran national facial recognition database. While the committee found the bills to be an important step for Australia, it recognised the privacy and security concerns associated. A new bill is expected to be drafted to more explicitly incorporate principles relating to privacy, transparency, governance, and user obligations.
The database, called 'The Capability', would contain images from Australian passports, drivers' licences and immigration cards and could determine the identity of unknown faces as well as a way of verifying identification in order to stamp out fraud.
This article was updated on February 29, 2020 to include comments from the AFP and Victoria Police.
Ahead of the 2019 Australian federal election, two bills that would pave the way for a nation-wide facial database were ditched. Since then they have been re-introduced and a parliamentary inquiry is looking into their viability. A public hearing into the bills that was scheduled for next week has been unexpectedly cancelled and it's not yet clear why. Here's what we know so far.