New ICE/Clearview AI Contract Underscores Secrecy Around Government Facial Recognition Contractors

Following news reports that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) signed a $224,000 contract with the secretive, controversial facial recognition company Clearview AI, Lisa Rosenberg, executive director of Open The Government released the following statement:

“ICE’s extensive track record of abusive enforcement practices at the expense of civil rights makes the news of this contract with Clearview AI especially worrisome. Contrary to Clearview AI’s repeated assertion that its service is simply an image search system, the company illicitly collects Americans’ images that, when paired with personal demographic data from social media platforms, enable law enforcement to create detailed profiles of individuals without their knowledge or consent.

“The risks this contract poses to the public’s right to privacy are particularly worrying because government contractors such as Clearview are not currently subject to the Freedom of Information Act, enabling them to operate in the dark with zero accountability to taxpayers. Not only do taxpayers foot the bill of their own surveillance by ICE, but the public also faces the additional risk of exposure when the data collected is compromised.”

To ensure greater transparency and accountability around federal agencies’ use of facial recognition, practical recommendations for Congress from the Open The Government coalition include:

Applying the Freedom of Information Act to private companies: Each year, a larger portion of government work is performed by private government contractors, who make up an estimated 4 in 10 federal government workers and account for a whopping 40 percent of discretionary spending. Yet they are exempt from FOIA, the primary law that upholds the public’s right to know and hold the government accountable for wrongdoing. Congress must reform FOIA to ensure that government contractors such as Clearview AI provide the information necessary for the government to respond to FOIA requests related to their surveillance technology to ensure transparency regarding the capabilities and limitations of their products.

Supporting legislation that puts a moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology: Evidenced by ICE’s contract with Clearview AI, law enforcement agencies across the country continue to use facial recognition technology even though the technology has increasingly been found to be inaccurate and racially biased. The bicameral Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act introduced by Senators Ed Markey (D-MA) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Representatives Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) would stop funding for government agencies’ use of biometric technology, including facial recognition tools. The legislation followed pledges by several large facial technology suppliers to stop the sale of the technology to law enforcement until comprehensive legislation is enacted, but Congress cannot wait for private companies to self-regulate as other companies such as Clearview continue to supply the technology to law enforcement.

Requiring stricter safeguards and privacy standards: Until a moratorium is in effect, Congress should require law enforcement agencies to establish strict safeguards and privacy standards before purchasing and deploying facial recognition software to protect the public from a technology that has a propensity for false matches and algorithmic bias. They should also examine the risks that the technology could be used to track people based on race, ethnicity, religious or political views.