4 Investigates: Police use of AI facial recognition

4 Investigates: Police use of AI facial recognition

Most of us want dangerous criminals off our streets. But at what cost? Would you volunteer your photo for a police lineup? What about your personal information?

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Most of us want dangerous criminals off our streets, but at what cost? Would you volunteer your photo for a police lineup? What about your personal information?

Turns out, you don’t have much of a choice.

We see the images often, criminals who are caught in the act posted on social media, sometimes as a call for help from local law enforcement. But cops could be done waiting on tips and leads to slowly trickle in.

“We enter the picture, and we just have high hopes that we’ll be able to get something back,” said Deputy Chief of Albuquerque Police Department’s Investigations Bureau Cecily Barker.

Around the nation, police are turning to technology that your social media accounts and online pictures are helping feed. It’s called artificial intelligence facial recognition.

In New Mexico, a company called Clearview AI is at the helm.

“We are seeing huge success from it in cases where we wouldn’t otherwise be able to identify someone,” said Barker.

APD is now among a handful of local agencies that pays for access to what Clearview AI claims is a worldwide database of more than 40 billion photos. Pictures taken from: social media, online profiles, professional pages, news stories, mug shots and criminal databases. Pictures you may not even know existed.

NM Agencies using Clearview AI:

Albuquerque Police Department     

  • $25,000 per year
  • 3-year subscription starting 2022
  • 75 Users

Rio Rancho Police Department     

  • $6,555 per year           
  • 3-year subscription starting 2023
  • 5 Users

New Mexico State Police

  • 9,995 per year
  • 3-year subscription starting 2021
  • 10 Users

Eddy County Sheriff’s Office

  • Unknown

Las Cruces Police Department

  • $8,876
  • 1-year trial starting 2023

With the help of that tech, APD recently arrested Malcolm Alonzo. He’s accused of recording people inside Walmart bathroom stalls.

Clearview matched his photograph to a person captured on cell phone video taken at the store.

“You’re already in the system, whether it is a system that involves a conviction, an arrest or being a member of the community on social media,” said local defense attorney and KOB legal expert Ahmad Assed. “You’re part of that system, you’re part of that database, for better or for worse. You’re there.”

Say police get a video or surveillance image showing someone committing a crime, they plug that into the database and AI sifts through images looking for a possible match. There could be many matches, even more than one picture of the same person.

“It’s pretty amazing what it can do,” said Sonia Gipson Rankin a UNM professor of law. “It can get pretty good at seeing distinctions between even identical twins, but it’s not perfect, and it makes lots of mistakes. In fact, it makes innumerable mistakes, particularly as it relates to people past certain pigment colors.”

Gipson Rankin points to numerous wrongful identifications around the country using facial recognition technology.

“They get an image the computer spit out, the AI spit out. Person ‘A’ that you’re looking for looks just like this person we found in the database,” said Gipson Rankin. “They stop this individual and say, ‘We believe you have stolen these things out of Jefferson Parish out of Louisiana.’ And this gentleman who had never been to Louisiana said, ‘What is a Jefferson Parish?'”

“We do have concerns and that’s why we really had a lot of deep conversations prior to signing our contract with Clearview,” said Deputy Chief Barker. “That’s why our policy reflects case laws that we’ve seen throughout the country and really addresses accountability measures.”

Albuquerque police has policy in place for how and when the technology can be used. Their contract with the company limits access to users. It’s a $75,000 subscription for three years.

“We watch this low cost to entry kind of have some concerns on both ends. Are these reputable companies that can be held accountable if they have not been properly protecting people’s data?”

As with APD’s Shot Spotter System, third party tech contracts are notoriously secretive about what information the public gets to see. While APD told 4 Investigates the department has had the tech for about a year, we don’t know much else.

“The lack of laws and legislation is a bit troubling because we seem to need to catch up to a technology that’s way ahead of us,” said Ahmad Assed.

Assed said has many questions about the database, and the quality of the photos being used to search for a suspect.

In a contract with New Mexico State Police, Clearview warns, “Like other facial recognition algorithms, results are always best obtained with high quality images in good lighting conditions.”

“To be clear, it’s just an investigative lead for us. It is not probable cause. We cannot make an arrested based on a Clearview identification in and of itself,” said Deputy Chief Barker.

She points back to the Alonzo case and the many other investigative means detectives used. Things like interview witnesses, a photo lineup and tracking down Alonzo’s car, that was parked in the parking lot.

In the Alonzo case, there were 49 matches. Some, APD said, were other pictures of Alonzo. But Clearview also identified other people. People APD said did not commit the crime.

“We’re doing everything we can to ensure that we don’t have a false identification,” said Deputy Chief Barker.

KOB 4 asked, with the technology being used by more New Mexico departments, if UNM law professor Gipson Rankin thinks we could see wrongful identification in the future.

“Yes, yes, because it’s already happening around the country. Look, this facial recognition technology has been out for decades, decades, and it still cannot detect people at my pigmentation,” she said.

The technology train has left the station.

“This individual allegedly used technology, should law enforcement also have access to certain types of tools to also monitor these types of things? I do believe they should as long as it falls within our constitutional protections,” said Gipson Rankin.

But there’s a lot more work to make sure tech isn’t rolling over privacy rights.

“There needs to be a lot more emphasis on checks and balances,” said Assed.

“Where there is no law, technology will go without boundaries,” said Gipson Rankin.

Right now, New Mexico does not have a state law governing how police can use your pictures to catch a criminal. But Gipson Rankin said she has talked to the New Mexico lawmakers about the urgency to act.