New documents revealed to the ABC show how Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers had been using controversial facial recognition app, Clearview AI. While the AFP initially denied using the app, it finally admitted to it back in April. Now we know a bit more about how the app was utilised.
In a new report by the ABC’s Technology team, documents showed officers in the AFP’s Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) had used Clearview’s database to conduct searches for five people of interest.
While the AFP had not entered an official contract with the startup company, its officers had accessed the services as early as November 2019 without any oversight.
When a New York Times report was published on January 18, revealing the app had reportedly scraped more than three billion images from the internet, the officers continued to access the app for a further four days until they were directed to cease usage.
The ABC's documents showed officers knew of media reports stating the AFP wasn't using the app, which quoted the agency's denial. One email from an officer read: "Maybe someone should tell the media that we are using it!"
By February 2020, a Buzzfeed News investigation had revealed more than 2,200 agencies, companies, and individuals around the world had signed up or conducted app searches, including law enforcement officials in Australia.
At the time, the AFP, as well as other state police forces, either denied knowledge of the app or refused to confirm whether their officers had accessed it.
“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 Australian in late February when asked whether it was possible its officers were using agency emails to sign up.
Around the same time, the AFP appeared before a senate inquiry conducting a review into the metadata retention laws. The agency was asked to answer questions about numerous media reports suggesting some of its officers had accessed the app, but took the questions on notice to clarify its position.
A later supplementary submission confirmed seven of its officers within the ACCCE team had accessed Clearview AI between 2 November and 22 January.
"This trial involved nine invitations sent from Clearview.AI to AFP officers to register for a free trial. Of these, seven AFP officers then activated the trial and conducted searches. These searches included images of known individuals, and unknown individuals related to current or past investigations relating to child exploitation," the AFP wrote in a submission to the inquiry.
Australia's privacy watchdog launches an investigation into Clearview AI
The AFP revelations come just days after Australia's privacy watchdog, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC), had announced a joint investigation with its British equivalent into privacy concerns regarding the app.
“The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) and the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) have opened a joint investigation into the personal information handling practices of Clearview AI Inc., focusing on the company’s use of ‘scraped’ data and biometrics of individuals,” a joint statement read.
“The investigation highlights the importance of enforcement cooperation in protecting the personal information of Australian and UK citizens in a globalised data environment.”
The OAIC provided no further details on how long the investigation would run on for but the AFP previously admitted in April it was working with the office regarding its usage of the app.
“The AFP seeks to balance the privacy, ethical and legal challenges of new technology with its potential to solve crime and even save victims,” an AFP spokesperson told Gizmodo Australia in April.
“We are actively looking to improve our processes and governance without necessarily constraining innovative investigative approaches.”
Gizmodo Australia understands the AFP is undergoing a review into officers using new technologies that are yet to be approved.