The Vadodara City Police, in the Indian state of Gujarat, is planning to use Clearview AI’s controversial facial recognition software in public places such as railway stations and bus depots, and to track “property offenders”, Joint Commissioner of Vadodara City Police, KG Bhati, told MediaNama. The department had “piloted” the software “earlier this year”, Bhati said, but did not specify when, for how long, and for what purpose, or when they would start using the service. Another high-ranking official from the police department told MediaNama, on the condition of anonymity, that the software could be used in CCTVs installed at “specific locations” in the city.
“We are planning to use the facial recognition software at public places, so that as soon as any offender passes through it, it would flash a message,” Bhati told us. He said that the plan to use the service is currently under process, but the “police department is very much planning to use it”.
Clearview AI’s software is similar to those being used by other police departments in India; once you feed a person’s image into it, it will pull out all matching faces from its database. The software pulls facial data from all publicly available images online, including from Twitter, Facebook, Google, Instagram, YouTube, news articles, and more. The result is a database of unprecedented scale — over 3 billion images to be exact — to readily identify any person walking on the street, with just a single image. US law enforcement and police have used its app to help solve shoplifting, identity theft, credit card fraud, murder and child sexual exploitation cases, the New York Times had reported.
Vadodara police’s use of the software possibly means that Clearview AI’s software has now been trained to identify Indian/brown faces. Telangana police used TSCOP, an app which includes fingerprint and facial data of several criminals, to identify what it calls “potential suspects”. Tamil Nadu Police uses a similar service called FaceTagr. Delhi police — infamous for using disproportionate force on the public — uses Innefu’s facial recognition software, and has deployed it to screen people at PM Narendra Modi’s recent rally.
The Vadodara City Police department is planning to use a facial recognition system when India doesn’t have a data protection law. The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, which is currently being deliberated upon by a Joint Parliamentary Committee, has carved out exemptions for government agencies to adhere to provisions of the Bill.
We reached out to the Vadodara City Police after BuzzFeed News reported that law enforcement agencies, government bodies and police forces in 27 countries, including India, were using Clearview AI’s facial recognition software. The report said that the Vadodara City Police signed up for the software in January 2020, and has performed a handful of searches.
The report also highlighted that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Justice, the FBI, Macy’s, and Best Buy were among the 2,228 law enforcement departments, government agencies, and private companies using Clearview AI’s service. In total, these entities have reportedly performed nearly 500,000 searches, all of which are logged by Clearview AI.
This comes after Clearview AI’s entire client list was stolen, which could potentially include data related to the Vadodara City police as well. BuzzFeed’s revelations also go on to show that Clearview AI’s client list includes both government and private entities, which contradicts the company’s claims that its service is only used by law enforcement agencies and “select security professionals”.
Clearview AI scrapes facial images from the public internet
Clearview AI had first come under the scanner when New York Times reported in January that the service was built by collecting images from across the web, taking them from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, news sites, and more. Following the revelation, Twitter had sent a cease and desist letter to Clearview AI, asking it to stop scraping content from the platform, and delete existing photos it had stored, followed by similar notices by Google, YouTube and Facebook.
Hoan Ton-That, Clearview AI’s CEO, in an interview with CNN Business said that the images are scraped only from “publicly available resources”. However, it doesn’t remove such images from the database, in case some photos are made private later on, as was found in a demonstration of the app in that very interview.
In an earlier interview with CBS, Ton-That had called his company a “search engine for faces”, and argued that Google can also pull information from different websites, and if resources are public and are available on Google, they can also be present on Clearview’s app. He further argued that it is Clearview AI’s First Amendment right to access public data.