SPD Detective’s Use of Prohibited Facial Recognition Software Raises Questions About Surveillance Oversight

Image by FlitsArt from Pixabay

By Paul Kiefer

Over the past year, more than a dozen Seattle Police Department officers have received promotional emails advertising a controversial artificial intelligence software called Clearview AI, which bills itself as a kind of Google search for faces. Clearview enables law enforcement agencies to identify unknown people—protest participants, for example—by matching their photos to online images and arrest or interrogate them after the fact.

In March, one of the promotional emails made its way into then-Chief Carmen Best’s inbox, along with the inboxes of numerous other SPD officers of varying ranks. But only one officer—Detective Nicholas Kartes of the South Precinct’s burglary unit—appears to have taken the company’s offer, opening an account with his official Seattle email address more than a year ago.

Under most circumstances, an individual detective’s subscription to questionable surveillance software would go unnoticed. But Clearview AI is uniquely reviled by privacy advocates: its business model, which relies upon billions of images scraped without permission from every corner of the internet, has prompted horrified coverage from outlets as prominent as the New York Times. In fact, Kartes’ subscription to Clearview AI came to light because of an episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver on the subject.

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The episode prompted Seattle-area blogger Bridget Brululo to submit a public records request to SPD in June to determine whether anyone with SPD is using the service. Earlier this month, the department fulfilled the request, providing Brululo a collection of roughly 200 emails to or from SPD officers mentioning Clearview AI. Most of the emails were promotional, but they also included evidence that Kartes has communicated with the software company and possibly used their service earlier this year.

Aside from the controversy that surrounds it, SPD officers aren’t currently allowed to use Clearview AI for law enforcement purposes. The surveillance ordinance passed by the city council in 2018 requires city departments to submit new surveillance technologies to a review process that ends with a council vote to approve or prohibit the technology’s use by city departments.

Clearview AI—which first attracted widespread attention late last year—is not on the council’s list of approved technologies. But according to Mary Dory, a public safety auditor currently working on the Kartes case with the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), that ordinance doesn’t address the use of surveillance technology by individual officers. “If the department is caught using something outside the bounds of the ordinance, the city can take it away from them,” she said. “It isn’t focused on individual officers who have gone rogue or made a mistake.”

That leaves the city’s accountability partners responsible for investigating Kartes’ use of Clearview AI—namely, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) and the OIG—in an unfamiliar position. “We’ve seen instances in which officers just didn’t know that they were breaking the rules,” Dory said. “But that points to something systemic—why didn’t the department make sure their officers knew the rules? Or did the officer just ignore them?”

It’s also unclear whether Kartes violated department policy. To Office of Police Accountability Director Andrew Myerberg, the revelation that an SPD detective is using Clearview AI was alarming enough to prompt his office to launch an investigation, but he told PubliCola that the act of creating an account itself might not constitute a policy violation. “If they used the account for an investigation,” he added, “that would be a clear violation of policy.”

Randall Huserik, a Public Information Officer for SPD, didn’t deny that Kartes used his Clearview AI account within the past year. However, he told PubliCola that the detective downloaded the application onto his personal phone to “experiment with its capacities—not in the course of his duties.”

Those details largely reflect an email Kartes wrote to a company representative in 2019, in which he commented that he had “done some experimenting” with the application. However, subsequent emails suggest that Kartes began using his Clearview AI account on City of Seattle computers by early 2020. Login alert emails from March and April this year show that Kartes’ Clearview AI account was accessed from at least two desktop computers; the IP addresses of those computers reveal that they are located in Seattle city government buildings, and one IP address belongs to a secure city network.

Neither computer can be linked directly to Kartes. Jennifer Lee, the manager of the ACLU of Washington’s Technology and Liberty Project, said that the login alerts could point to multiple SPD officers sharing the same account. Nevertheless, Lee says that the ACLU will be paying close attention to the OIG and investigations into the case. “We don’t know how it was used,” she said, “but it is technology that invades privacy and the surveillance ordinance was created to provide some oversight and transparency processes for that kind of technology, and it seems like those processes haven’t been followed.”

Myerberg said it will be hard to tell whether Kartes or any other detectives used the Clearview AI account for investigative purposes. “I can’t imagine there’s a case in which the detective noted that they used AI when writing their probable cause statement,” he said. “That would get flagged by a defense attorney immediately.” Only Clearview AI itself has records of Kartes’ search history, which would be necessary to connect the software to any arrests or investigations.

Moreover, Myerberg added, his office has no guideposts for how to discipline Kartes if they find him guilty of misconduct. SPD officers have been suspended for using department databases for personal purposes in the past, but Myerberg said that the use of a private Clearview AI account for law enforcement purposes “could be bigger than [misuse of department databases] because of the public trust concerns it raises.”

In addition to the OPA and OIG, the ACLU of Washington plans to bring the newly published emails to the attention of the city council in the coming week.


(A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Captain James Dermody is a Brady officer. Dermody’s placement on the King County Prosecutor’s Office’s Brady List was pending the findings of a misconduct investigation; the allegations against him were not sustained.)

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