ACLU of Washington Calls on Mayor Jenny Durkan to Ban Face Recognition Technology after the Seattle Police Department’s Apparent Violation of the City’s Surveillance Ordinance

News Release: 
Wednesday, December 2, 2020
SEATTLE – In a letter sent today, the ACLU of Washington urged Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to ban the use of face recognition technology by city agencies.

This request comes amid concerns that the Seattle Police Department (SPD) has acquired and used face recognition technology developed by Clearview AI, in apparent violation of the Seattle Surveillance Ordinance.

SPD detectives have been using Clearview AI since at least September 2019, according to information obtained through a public records request submitted by a member of the public in June 2020.

Clearview AI’s face surveillance tool allows users to take a photo and compare it to the company’s database of three billion public images scraped from the internet. The information gathered can be used by law enforcement agencies, companies, and individuals to identify people in public spaces without the knowledge, consent, or participation of the subjects in the photos.

SPD’s adoption of Clearview AI is especially concerning due to the agency’s recent pattern of deploying other surveillance tools to monitor protesters, according to Jennifer Lee, the ACLU of Washington’s Technology and Liberty Project Manager.

“Face surveillance is a powerful and racially biased tool that invades people’s privacy and exerts a chilling effect on free speech,” said Lee. “Mayor Durkan should act swiftly to ban this technology and avoid further harm to the most marginalized communities in our society.” SPD had apparently not followed the process outlined by the Seattle Surveillance Ordinance to acquire and use Clearview AI.

Approved by the Seattle City Council in 2017, the surveillance ordinance requires agencies to undergo a public review process and receive city council approval before acquiring or using any surveillance technology. SPD has repeatedly said the department does not use face recognition technology.

The ACLU also asked that Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Alex Pedersen, who chair committees that oversee SPD and Seattle Information Technology, respectively, hold a hearing and get answers from SPD about its use of Clearview AI and other surveillance tools.

Consistent with the enforcement section of the ordinance, the ACLU is calling on the city’s Chief Technology Officer to direct SPD to immediately stop using Clearview AI and any data collected with the platform.