Clearview AI, Used by Police to Find Criminals, Is Now in Public Defenders’ Hands
The New York Times recently published an article about Clearview AI’s use to exonerate a public defendant. Find it here.
In 2017, Andrew Grantt Conlyn of Fort Myers, Florida was involved in a car crash that took the life of his friend, the driver at the time of the crash. The driver was under the influence and speeding when he hit a curb, losing control of the car before it spun to hit a light pole and three palm trees. The driver was ejected from the car and killed, and Conlyn was trapped inside the burning vehicle until a good Samaritan pulled him out of the car. The good Samaritan talked to the police, who obtained bodycam footage of him, but was not asked for his name or contact information. Because he was not asked to stay, the good Samaritan then left the scene, leaving him unidentifiable beyond the bodycam footage. Two years later, Conlyn was charged with vehicular homicide of his friend, with the prosecution claiming Conlyn to be the driver at the time of the crash. Conlyn had no evidence proving otherwise other than the bodycam footage. The contradicting evidence used by the prosecution showed that Conlyn was rescued from the drivers’ side of the car (in reality because the passenger side was blocked by a tree) and his wounds could have been caused by the central console as much as the passenger door. His lawyers, provided by the Justice Administrative Commission as a result of Conlyn’s income, tried to identify the good Samaritan to no avail.
Eventually, they turned to facial recognition. After a free online service returned no results, Patrick Bailey, one of Conlyn’s lawyers, wrote a letter to Clearview AI explaining Conlyn’s situation. In light of a recent Illinois class-action lawsuit, Clearview is no longer allowed to provide their services to private individuals and companies, but because the lawyers were contracted by a state agency of Florida, they were allowed to sell their facial recognition software. Using the technology, the good Samaritan was quickly identified as a man named Vince Ramirez, and after his deposition by the prosecution, they immediately dropped their case against Conlyn.
Because of its success in exonerating Conlyn, Clearview is now offering their technology to public defendants and lawyers contracted by the government for indigent clients, for little to no cost. The move is suspected to be intended to gain goodwill in the public’s eye, considering the extensive pushback against Clearview for their privacy violation. The photo database they use to identify faces scraped billions of photos from social media sites without consent of the people depicted, and because their technology can only be used as a lead by law enforcement and not probable cause for arrest, there exists no transparency around its use to defendants that the technology is being used against. On top of these issues, facial recognition technology has been proven to be inaccurate across race, gender, and age, making its use in criminal justice especially troubling.
On the other hand, perhaps Clearview can be used to help defendants. Hoan Ton-That, the CEO of Clearview, argues that its use to help public defendants will “balance the scales of justice” and clear the names of innocent people like Conlyn. But if law enforcement can potentially falsely flag innocent civilians as a result of using Clearview (and they continue to face international pushback), it remains unclear if its use is justified.