Blogging Bayport Alameda

April 7, 2021

Gave good face

Filed under: Alameda — Lauren Do @ 6:07 am

If you haven’t see it yet, I would suggesting pulling open this piece from BuzzFeed, and no, it’s a not a quiz, about facial recognition technology. Alameda is featured and not in a good way.

From the article:

In Alameda, California, BuzzFeed News found that police officers continued to use Clearview after elected leaders voted to ban the technology in December 2019. In the months before that vote, an Alameda police officer warned Clearview cofounder Richard Schwartz that the department was facing “an uphill battle” to approve a paid contact for the software. Schwartz’s reply, in an August 2019 email obtained via a public records request, denounced the “anti-facial-recognition narrative” and touted Clearview as a “state-of-the-art investigative tool for law enforcement that is super-accurate and 100% unbiased.”

He added, “Are they really going to let politics and deliberately misleading reports prevent you from using a life-saving tool like Clearview?” (The company declined to answer questions about Schwartz’s communications with Alameda police officers.)

When Alameda became the fourth city in California to ban the use of facial recognition in December 2019, some officers apparently did not heed the directive. Records seen by BuzzFeed News show that Alameda police officers — who ran nearly 550 searches in data — continued to use Clearview at least until February 2020, unbeknownst to city officials. The city manager and city council members, who told BuzzFeed News that the officers’ use of the software has been hard to track because of its free trials, are now investigating the matter.

“Never in my job would I ever think, Oh, I wonder if I can use this and not check it with a higher authority,” John Knox White, a member of the Alameda City Council, told BuzzFeed News. “If something is controversial, we should check in with the city attorney’s office; key decision-makers should be involved to make sure there’s no problem.”

He added, “That we have emails showing police used this technology after an actual vote saying you can’t do this is extremely troubling.”

That last quote from Councilmember John Knox White is the understatement of the year. I imagine that folks around town which have been pro “give the police whatever toys they want” are furiously attempting to find a way to make this sound somewhat palatable. It’s going to be a heavy lift to do so since the usage was done even with the policy made by elected leaders to not use facial recognition software.

What is really concerning is the inability of the software to correctly identify people of color:

In early 2020, a source with access to the Clearview AI mobile app conducted a series of searches on behalf of BuzzFeed News. That person, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, ran more than 30 searches using a group of images including several photos of computer-generated faces.

On two searches for computer-generated faces — a woman of color and a girl of color — Clearview returned images of real people as matches. For example, it matched an artificial face to an image of a real girl of color in Brazil, whose school had posted her picture to Instagram. For searches of computer-generated white faces, no false matches occurred.

I hope we get some answers to the many questions about the police department that this reporting has unleashed.

10 Comments »

  1. There needs to be a full investigation of this event, and of the department overall. This is a scandal, and if I were the city manager I’d be intent on correcting APD’s apparent belief that they have no bosses. It’s intolerable.

    Comment by Gaylon — April 7, 2021 @ 7:10 am

    • Facial recognition is here whether you like it or not. It was just used to identify two Yemeni’s on the terrorist no fly list as they tried to illegally cross our wide open Southern border as well as to identify child traffickers, and was extensively used by the FBI to identify the citizens who protested in Washington DC on January 6.

      It is also used by countries and companies that you support by buying their products, like Chinese Communist police, Facebook and Apple.

      No “latest outrage or scandal” sorry…

      Comment by Observer — April 7, 2021 @ 10:17 am

      • Observer – Perhaps you need to read Gaylon’s comment again, carefully. The scandal is not the use of facial recognition itself, but specifically about APD being told not to do something, and they wantonly did it anyway. This is the takeaway – “I’d be intent on correcting APD’s apparent belief that they have no bosses.”

        Whether or not facial recognition technology is a good idea is a completely different topic. We’re clearly headed in that direction as a society, but there’s a lot of suspect information about there about this particular company. If it were a government agency developing and maintaining the technology, peer-reviewed by experts to monitor for accuracy and biases, algorithm regularly audited by a third party, and a well-developed privacy and retention policy, I might totally be on board. But this company is absolutely not that.

        Comment by JRB — April 7, 2021 @ 11:15 am

  2. So much going on in this story.

    Clearview is obviously a scam. A product that does not do what it purports to do. If it actually worked, then I might be inclined to want the APD to use it.

    Clearview is definitely trying to stoke the “cops v. citizens” animosity. Does anyone really think that is a good thing?

    If an officer used Clearview after learning that the City Council said you can’t, there should be consequences. If it led to an arrest (and that’s a big “if” since it appears to be crap) and officers weren’t supposed to use it, that is reason enough to throw out the case. How are City Council rules passed on to officers? Or does the City Council assume every officer is watching the CC meetings? But at the very least, the incident(s) need to be investigated.

    But John Knox White’s insertion of himself into this situation is laughable. “Never in my job would I ever think, Oh, I wonder if I can use this and not check it with a higher authority,” I don’t know what JKW does as he day job, but I’d be willing to bet $100 to Alameda Family Services that this is not true. Everyone I know tries out new software that they think can help them in their job. For my organization, if there is something we are not supposed to use, we are prohibited from installing it–not by rules, but by software that literally does not allow us to install it.

    As someone who not only voted for JKW but got over a dozen friends and family to do so, I increasingly regret my vote and am greatly embarrassed. I wanted someone who wasn’t a Trish Spencer-type idiot, someone who supported affordable housing, and someone who would help to continue to assure this is the best place to live. Is that too much to ask?

    Comment by Sleepy Moe — April 7, 2021 @ 7:32 am

    • There were dozens of other public officials quoted in the article. Did they “insert” themselves into the situation or were they asked for a position and then quoted accordingly?

      Do better at understanding how journalism works.

      Comment by Lauren Do — April 7, 2021 @ 8:11 am

      • Fair point, thanks.

        It was a stupid think for JKW to say though.

        Comment by Sleepy Moe — April 7, 2021 @ 8:30 am

        • And entirely consistent with his massive ego…

          Comment by ... — April 7, 2021 @ 8:34 am

        • Nah it wasn’t. It was true. It’s only a culture that supports a belief that they are above the rules that would break a policy that was clearly stated without any fear of repercussion. Few of us in our work lives can say that we could do something against stated policy and not get into serious professional shit for doing that.

          Could you?

          Comment by Lauren Do — April 7, 2021 @ 8:38 am

        • JKW was approached for this story, and used an everyday analogy that makes perfect sense to any one of us. If you installed an unauthorized software on your work computer, you should at least get a warning for it. But if you installed an unauthorized software *after being explicitly told not to do it,* then you should get in a lot of trouble for it. I’m sure smaller companies have a very lax rule about installing new software. Larger corporations are far more strict – companies I’ve worked with, you’d need to contact an IT administrator to remote into your computer and they would install it for you. Where Alameda PD is along this technology spectrum, I’m not sure. They’ve already proven to be very casual about their social media policy (or lack thereof), so this latest revelation seems to be part of a larger pattern with APD.

          Comment by Reality — April 7, 2021 @ 11:24 am

  3. City of Alameda IT Department can block app installation and website visits, and this should have been done with Clearview.

    Comment by dc — April 9, 2021 @ 2:28 pm


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