“We thought it was too controversial of a feature because it was too easy to use that functionality for abuse,” said Mr. Burns. “And also it’s just a legal nightmare.”
Still, Mr. Burns said, he understood why investigators would want to use facial recognition software. “They are faced with a very grim task, and if there’s a tool that gives them an opportunity to safeguard victims, I don’t blame them for trying to grab it with both hands,” he said.
Since Clearview’s practices have come to light, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Venmo and YouTube have sent the company cease-and-desist letters, asking it to stop scraping photos from their sites and delete existing images in its database. The attorney general of New Jersey banned the use of Clearview by officers in the state and called for an investigation into how it and similar technologies were being used by law enforcement. A class-action lawsuit seeking certification was filed in Illinois, where a strong biometric privacy law prohibits the use of residents’ faceprints without their consent, and another was filed on Feb. 3 in Virginia.
Bills banning the use of facial recognition by police have recently been introduced in New York and Washington. And Clearview received a letter from Senator Edward Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, asking for a list of law enforcement agencies that have used the app and whether biometric information has been collected for children under 13 years old.
“While this type of technology has existed for quite some time, we believe we have created something that enables law enforcement to solve previously unsolvable crimes and, most importantly, protect vulnerable children,” Mr. Ton-That said in his email. “At the same time, we are responding to requests for information from government and other interested parties as appropriate, and look forward to engaging in constructive discussions with them as we work to make our communities safer.”
In October, law enforcement groups sent a letter to members of Congress, urging them to not ban the use of facial recognition for their investigations. “We understand the public’s concern about protection of their privacy and civil rights,” they wrote. “With clear, publicly available policies we believe those concerns can be addressed.”
Many agencies had been using Clearview for months at the time the letter was sent, but the letter made no mention of it.
Michael H. Keller and Aaron Krolik contributed reporting.