Clearview AI: What does Interpol use face recognition for?

The International Police Organisation is developing a system to identify unknown persons by facial images. Interpol stores photos and videos from Internet service providers and other companies in a separate database. Interpol has also been using Clearview services for face recognition.

The US company Clearview AI has collected around three billion personal images from the Internet and used them to create a facial recognition database. This was reported in the New York Times six weeks ago. Most of the pictures were taken from social media profile photos, and it is likely that Clearview will also store the corresponding user data. Clearview offers companies and government agencies the option of identifying individuals by querying the database. According to reports, the facial images can also be searched with a photo app, which according to the New York Times is distributed among „rich people“.

The U.S. magazine Buzzfeed has obtained a client list from Clearview. It contains over 2,200 companies, governments and police authorities, including Interpol. The worldwide police organization has conducted more than 320 searches.

„Monitoring platforms, industry and commercial OSINT“

The Interpol General Secretariat in Lyon confirmed to journalists that „a small number of officials“ had used the application. According to Interpol, however, there was no business relationship with Clearview, but only a free 30-day trial account.

This is plausible, as the organization is currently developing its own facial recognition system. In April last year, Interpol launched the two-year DTECH project, which processes photos and videos from social media. Interpol receives the files through official channels, writes the German Federal Ministry of the Interior. According to this, DTECH is based on facial images provided by „national authorities, regional monitoring platforms, industry and commercial OSINT“. They are then stored at Interpol.

Like Clearview, DTECH is used to identify individuals. According to the German government, it should assign „nominal data“ (i.e. personal data, ID card numbers, etc.) to unknown persons. However, it is unclear with which reference files at Interpol the faces obtained via DTECH are compared. This would be possible in the project „Facial, Imaging, Recognition, Searching and Tracking“ (FIRST), which is intended to identify unknown terrorist suspects.

New database with mug shots

FIRST made a first attempt in prisons in Niger. Interpol received facial images from anti-terrorism authorities or military and initially searched for them in its own files. Photos of still unknown persons were then distributed to the 192 Interpol member states as so-called „Blue Notices“ for identifying them and tracing their whereabouts. If the national authorities have a face recognition system, the photos can be compared with their corresponding databases. At the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) this is the INPOL file, where around 5 million searchable facial images are currently stored.

Interpol is also building up such a facial database known as the „Criminal Information System“ (ICIS). These are images which are available anyway at Interpol in connection with „Notices“ or „Diffuisons“ from the Member States. They are checked for their suitability for face recognition and then stored in a separate database. Last year, some 54 000 personal data records with searchable photographs were stored there.

According to Interpol, the new file can be searched by the authorities of all Interpol member states. The „MorphoFace Investigate“ facial recognition software used for this purpose comes from the French company Safran. The German BKA also wants to use the database, but since 2016 this has failed for reasons of data protection. It is questionable under which procedure other police authorities are informed about „hits“, i.e. found faces. First of all, the BKA has to check whether it is not a „false positive“ – i.e. a face has been „recognized“ by mistake.

Clearview wants pictures from police departments

Interpol also operates a database of „Red Notices“, which contains criminals who are wanted for arrest. Each Member State can distribute these alerts to any other Interpol member. It is conceivable that Interpol would want to search the Internet for information on persons stored there. If the persons concerned have accounts in social media, for example, this information could help in finding out where they are. Clearview also offers such services to its users.

According to OneZero, Clearview is also asking police authorities for facial images, the US magazine has received a corresponding e-mail exchange about a freedom of information request. Clearview and its competitors are already using mug shots from scraped Internet sites, where images from the police’s investigations can be retrieved. A similar file is also available on the Interpol website. Clearview could thus offer itself as an auxiliary police officer by matching all three billion facial images with police searches and selling any hits to the police.

For privacy reasons, however, the police might prefer to do the matching themselves. According to the Hamburg data protection commissioner Johannes Caspar, for example, the use of services such as Clearview would not be fundamentally problematic. However, it would be illegal if the facial images queried by the police were to be stored by a private provider.

Working group on facial recognition

Interpol has set up a „Facial Recognition Working Group“ for the various facial recognition procedures. Police forces from Germany, Australia, France, Israel, Great Britain and the USA are invited to the meetings. The authorities present new techniques and areas of application for facial recognition.

The topics of the group have been specified by the German Federal Ministry of the Interior in its answer to a written question. According to this, the participants will discuss possibilities for „implementing face recognition at national level“, „international cooperation in the field of face recognition and data exchange“ and „development steps in the field of face recognition“. Information obtained there can „also be incorporated into the further development of national systems“. It is quite possible that the use of Clearview was also discussed at one of these meetings.

Image: PikRepro, CC0.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.