Staten Island District Attorney Used Forfeiture Funds To Secretly Purchase Clearview AI Access
from the just-pretend-you're-not-being-shitty dept
There are several reasons law enforcement agencies would take care not to associate themselves with Clearview.
First off, Clearview is the NSO Group of the facial recognition tech world. Its actions — which begin with scraping data from any publicly accessible website and end with selling its product to whoever expresses an interest — have made it a pariah in a field heavily populated by companies with malfunctioning moral compasses.
Second, Clearview has often overstated — if not actually lied about — its ability to help cops solve crimes. Many of its public statements and advertising pitches have been directly contradicted by the law enforcement agencies mentioned in these claims.
Third, Clearview is facing tons of legal action — not only in the United States, but overseas where privacy laws are much stricter. Law enforcement agencies are often unwilling to get in bed with international scofflaws… at least not publicly.
All of that explains why a district attorney’s office in New York City decided the best way to buy access to this tech was to buy it with off-the-books funds, as Sam Biddle reports for The Intercept.
Public records turned over to the Legal Aid Society in response to its request for information about how the Staten Island DA’s office paid for Clearview included a document titled “Guide to Equitable Sharing for State, Local, and Tribal Law Enforcement Agencies,” which outlines the program and how state entities can make use of it. In a letter sent to the Legal Aid Society and shared with The Intercept, the DA’s office confirmed that federal forfeiture proceeds had paid for its Clearview license.
The Staten Island DA’s decision to become part of the Clearview crew was first reported by Gothamist early last year. This purchase — which had yet to be connected to easily abused forfeiture funds — made this DA’s office an anomaly.
In New York City, the DA’s acquisition of the technology appears to be an outlier. In response to Gothamist’s inquiries, representatives for the District Attorneys of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens confirmed that their offices do not have Clearview AI’s software.
And rightly so. No self-respecting law enforcement agency should choose to do business with a company whose collection and storage methods operate in unsettled law and open not only Clearview, but also its customers, to potentially damaging litigation.
The use of forfeiture funds made it possible for the Staten Island DA’s office to secure use of this controversial product without alerting its oversight — or the general public that pays its bills — to this acquisition. One of the many, many problems inherent to asset forfeiture is its ability to provide discretionary funds to government agencies that can be spent without alerting oversight and/or opening up these proposed purchases to examination by taxpayers and their immediate representation.
That this office chose to go this route shows it understood how problematic its acquisition was. If it truly believed Clearview was the best tool for the job, it would have engaged in this purchase more transparently.