The good lawyers are pushing back on SPDs ability to match our faces to our identities with evil facial recognition software.
The ACLU wants to make sure the cops can't scan our faces. John Lund/Getty Images

According to public records received by a local blogger at the Bridge Burner Collective, over a year ago an officer with the Seattle Police Department opened an account with Clearview AI, the facial recognition app that matches a person's photo to a database of billions of photos scraped from social media posts.

Clearview AI can identify you if you've ever posted a shitty Facebook selfie, or if you've ever stumbled into the background of someone else's shitty Facebook selfie. The whole thing is fucking horrifying.

While it's unclear whether SPD used this technology in any investigations, the SPD officer with the Clearview AI account logged in multiple times from desktop computers in city government buildings and from an IP address on a secure city network, PubliCola reported last month.

According to a letter sent to city officials today, the ACLU of Washington believes the department "apparently violated" the Seattle Surveillance Ordinance, a law that requires SPD to notify a non-police city official if the department acquires any surveillance technology. SPD didn't notify the city about signing up to use Clearview AI, which prompted the ACLU to ask city officials such as Mayor Jenny Durkan to put an unambiguous end to SPD's relationship with the technology.

Jennifer Lee, the technology and liberty manager for the ACLU of Washington, sent a letter asking Durkan to ban SPD from using Clearview AI.

Lee also sent the letter to Seattle's Chief Technology Officer Saad Bashir and Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Alex Pedersen. Herbold chairs the public safety and human services committee, which oversees SPD, and Pedersen chairs the transportation and utilities committee, which deals with Seattle information technology.

“Face surveillance is a powerful and racially biased tool that invades people’s privacy and exerts a chilling effect on free speech,” said Lee in a press release. “Mayor Durkan should act swiftly to ban this technology and avoid further harm to the most marginalized communities in our society.”

Lee and the ACLU are concerned about SPD's habit of secretly acquiring facial recognition technology, citing SPD's 2014 under-the-radar purchase of the CIA-funded company called Geofeedia, which kept tabs on social media posts. That purchase violated the Seattle Surveillance Ordinance. However, according to a report by PubliCola, SPD may not be in violation of the ordinance with the Clearview AI sign-up because an individual officer—not the department—signed up for the app, and because it's unclear whether the cops used Clearview AI for an investigation.

The fact that there's even a possibility SPD used the technology or even still has access to the app or the data gleaned from the app is worrisome enough for the ACLU. Aside from banning Clearview AI, Lee also demands that that Bashir "stop any acquisition or use of Clearview AI or data collected with Clearview AI," and that Herbold and Pedersen hold a committee meeting with SPD about the surveillance technology it uses.

"The risks of SPD’s use of Clearview AI are also greater, since in the past few months, SPD has sought to subpoena footage of protesters from news media, raising the possibility that the department may have used or is using Clearview AI to surveil protesters," Lee wrote in the letter.

This summer, a King County judge ruled in favor of SPD's unaired footage subpoena, despite media outlets insisting the ruling would violate the First Amendment and a Washington state journalistic shield law. SPD ultimately withdrew that subpoena in September after the Washington State Supreme Court granted media outlets an emergency stay to keep footage private.

Mayor spokesperson Kelsey Nyland said that Durkan's office was working on a response to the letter. In the meantime, Nyland sent this statement in an email: "The Seattle Police Department has no licenses for Clearview AI, no agreements with Clearview AI, and does not use Clearview AI."

SPD responded with the same statement. A public information officer wrote in an email, "the Department has no licenses for Clearview, no agreements with Clearview, and does not use Clearview.

Herbold said she had previously communicated with SPD Chief Adrian Diaz about SPD's usage of Clearview AI. In an exchange from Nov. 18, Herbold urged Diaz to send "a department-wide communication that the use of this technology is a violation of City policy, even when used by an individual officer." Diaz responded with a vague letter to Herbold that didn't address her direct request.

Diaz wrote, "We have no intention or interest in pursuing a partnership with Clearview AI or acquiring the use of any facial recognition technology." He also said the Office of Police Accountability was investigating whether the officer "downloaded the software to his personal device." But, Diaz wrote, SPD had "information indicating a possibility that this email could be connected to a phishing attempt involving email addresses."

Herbold again emailed Diaz her request for him to issue a department-wide condemnation about using the software, but she didn't receive a reply. Herbold said she sent another email today with the same request.

Pedersen hasn't responded yet.

UPDATE 4:10 P.M.: Herbold said Diaz replied to her most recent letter. According to Herbold, Diaz said he sent a department-wide communication on Nov. 24 prohibiting employees from downloading or using Clearview AI. Herbold said he cited the Seattle Municipal Code which prohibits the use of new surveillance technology without first notifying the council under the Seattle Surveillance Ordinance.