Reports Show More AI, Facial Recognition Companies Working with Law Enforcement

Surveillance apps aren't always being used for their intended purpose
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Francis Scialabba

· 3 min read

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Pour a half caff out for all-night motel stakeouts. A growing number of law enforcement agencies are outsourcing or automating public surveillance, and privacy experts are feeling sucked into a 1984 time warp.

This week: Controversial facial recognition company Clearview AI is back in the spotlight, but AI startups Babel Street and Banjo are keeping it company.

Let's start with the B's

Babel Street's Locate X tech has fans in immigration and customs enforcement, Protocol reports. Locate X can identify mobile devices within a geofenced area and track those devices' location history...sometimes going back months.

  • The Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that the government needs a search warrant to access cell-tower location data for individual phone users. And most companies aren't allowed to give customer info to G-men.
  • Some experts worry the government is exploiting loopholes with Babel.

Then there's Banjo, a small company that has a five-year contract with Utah that allows it to tap into the state's vast data reserves, per Vice. The app scours emergency systems, traffic cameras, satellites, and social media, then alerts police to real-time crime. The partnership started as a way to fight child abduction, but Banjo thinks it can help with everything from active shootings to homelessness and opioid abuse.

  • There's little to no transparency around what gets reported to police or how the system protects against over-surveillance.

Zoom out: Babel and Banjo say they anonymize or strip personal info from their systems. However, it doesn't take Nancy Drew to work backwards from a frequented address to a name.

Sometimes it’s not the police

Not even coronavirus could spare crime-fighting Clearview AI from another round of exposés. Buzzfeed News reports that Clearview's clientele includes a Saudi research center and the UAE sovereign wealth fund—foreign connections that have U.S. leaders eye-twitching.

  • On Tuesday, Sen. Ed Markey sent Clearview a letter asking how it safeguards against authoritarian regimes.

Clearview also shows that the wealthy and powerful can get outsized access to powerful new tech. Before law enforcement was using Clearview, the startup gave investors, partners, and clients early demos, writes the NYT. Some used it for business-critical missions like stopping Häagen-Dazs theft...then broke it out for party tricks and creepily vetting their daughter's date.

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