A face recognition app used by thousands of law enforcement agencies, which has drawn considerable scrutiny in past weeks due to its creator's dubious data collection efforts, contains code hinting at a range of unreported potential features, based on a version of the app discovered by Gizmodo.
Reporters were able to download the most recent Android version of the app marketed to police by Clearview AI, a New York-based startup whose controversial scraping of an estimate three billion photographs from the likes of Facebook, Google, and YouTube have prompted legal threats from major tech companies and alarmed privacy hawks on Capitol Hill.
The app, which will not access Clearview’s face recognition system without a login, was found on an Amazon server that is publicly accessible. Information stored in S3 buckets, such as the one containing Clearview’s app, is usually encrypted by default. The version Gizmodo obtained does not come in the user-friendly form one might find in the Google Play Store. Instead, it is a file type native to Android apps, known as an APK. Using it, reporters were able to download the file and install it onto an Android device.
While not all of the app’s activity can be observed without a user account, reporters inspected data being sent to Google Analytics, Crashlytics, and App-Measurement, three companies that record basic details about any mobile devices running the app and tell Clearview whether the app is running smoothly. The app also grants access to Android’s Fine Location API, which determines the most precise location possible from available location providers, including the Global Positioning System (GPS) as well as wifi and mobile cell data.
Other bits of code appear to hint at features under development, such as references to a voice search option; an in-app feature that would allow police to take photos of people to run through Clearview’s database; and a “private search mode,” no further descriptions of which are available through surface-level access.
When reporters attempted to take screenshots of the app, they received an alert notifying them: “Screenshots must not be shared. Please share links of the search results instead. Any leaked screenshots will result in suspension of your account.”
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 one file, the app appears to include a feature that allows a user to search through Clearview’s proprietary database by simply tapping on an uploaded photo. The app also contains language encouraging users to send Clearview “success stories” regarding the app’s performance. It further includes the prompt: “Invite your coworkers or other investigators to Clearview for free. Just press share below to send a link with free Clearview demo account.” Without login access, it is impossible to know if or how these apparent features function.
Other code within the app identifies the unnamed augmented-reality glasses company with which Clearview told the New York Times it once planned to partner via instructions for installing a “companion app” designed by Vuzix, an AR and computer vision company that manufacturers smart glasses. (In a press release this month, Vuzix said its integration with another company, TensorMark, will allow customers “to identify countless facial and object images” stored in cloud databases.)
Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That said in an email to Gizmodo that the companion app is a prototype and “is not an active product.” RealWear, another company, which makes “a powerful, fully-rugged, voice operated Android computer” that is “worn on the head,” is also mentioned in the app, though it’s not immediately clear what for.
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.
The app also contains a script created by Google for scanning barcodes in connection with drivers licenses. (The file is named “Barcode$DriverLicense.smali”) Asked about the feature, Ton-That responded: “It doesn’t scan drivers licenses.” Gizmodo also inquired about the “private search mode” described by the app but did not receive a response.
Ton-That emphasised that the app cannot be used without a Clearview account. “A user can download the app, but not perform any searches without proper authorization and credentials,” he said.
Despite sitting on an Amazon S3 bucket unsecured, there is no public version of Clearview’s app, which is not available on either the Google Play Store or Apple’s App Store, nor Clearview’s website without a login.
“Clearview’s app is NOT available to the public,” Clearview says on its website. “While many people have advised us that a public version would be more profitable, we have rejected the idea. Clearview exists to help law enforcement agencies solve the toughest cases, and our technology comes with strict guidelines and safeguards to ensure investigators use it for its intended purpose only.”
On February 27, Clearview revealed a breach of its security said to include the names of its private and public clients and the number of times they searched its database. The following day, BuzzFeed News obtained internal documents included a long list of clients, which include the FBI, Customs and Border Protection, Interpol, in addition to hundreds of local police departments. (The New York Times previously reported that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security were testing the product.)
In addition to more than 2,200 law enforcement agencies, BuzzFeed said, Clearview’s software had been sold to companies in 27 countries, including major retailers such as Macy’s and Best Buy.
Clearview responded to the breach with a statement attributed to a lawyer, saying that security is the company’s “top priority” and adding, “Unfortunately, breaches are a part of life in the 21st century.”
Democratic Senators Ed Markey and Ron Wyden fired back at the response, with Markey calling the statement “laughable.” Wyden told Gizmodo by email that “shrugging and saying data breaches happen is cold comfort for Americans who could have their information spilled out to hackers without their consent or knowledge.”
Wyden’s office previously reached out to Clearview’s office and requested a demonstration of the app’s capabilities, Gizmodo has learned. The company allegedly agreed but has asked to reschedule on multiple occasions.
Geoffrey Starks, commissioner for the U.S.'s communications watchdog FCC, said the breach raised serious concerns about whether Clearview could be trusted with Americans’ personal data, adding that the technology itself raises “serious issues of privacy and civil liberties, particularly when it comes to communities of colour.”
A few police officials told the Times that Clearview’s product appeared far superior to its competitors, with one claiming that the algorithm accepts “photos that aren’t perfect.” The same officer told the paper he’d run photos from old cold cases through the app and identified more than 30 suspects. But the accuracy of face recognition software has been called into question by repeated studies that show such algorithms are inherently biased.
A study of 189 facial recognition systems conducted by a branch of the U.S. Commerce Department last year determined that people of African and Asian descent are misidentified by software at a rate 100 times higher than whites.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has called for a moratorium on the use of the technology by police, drew attention last year to the case of Willie Lynch who was arrested and charged with selling drugs based on the recommendations of a face recognition algorithm. Lynch was prohibited from challenging the technology’s reliability in court, even though the program used by police to arrest him expressed low confidence when matching his face to a photo of the suspect.
“Countless studies indicate that facial recognition is unreliable technology, that it doesn’t accurately identify people with darker skin complexions—especially women—and so we know that this technology will impact Black and brown communities in particularly dangerous ways,” Myaisha Hayes, national organiser on criminal justice and tech at MediaJustice, told Gizmodo at the time.
Facebook, Google, and Twitter each served Clearview with cease and desist letter this month, asking the company to halt the scraping of their users’ personal data, which Clearview’s Ton-That has defended by comparing his company to Google. “You have to remember that this is only used for investigations after the fact. This is not a 24/7 surveillance system,” said Ton-That, who argued his company had a First Amendment right to collect data Americans make public on social media and sell access to it for law enforcement purposes. “The way we have built our system is to only take publicly available information and index it that way,” he said.
A spokesperson for YouTube, whose website has also been scraped by Clearview, quickly fired back: “Clearview secretly collected image data of individuals without their consent, and in violation of rules explicitly forbidding them from doing so.”