AFP admits using ‘problematic’ face app

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The Australian Federal Police has used the controversial Clearview AI app on multiple occasions despite previously denying it had ever accessed the “deeply problematic” facial recognition platform.

Founded by Australian Hoan Ton-That, Clearview offers itself up to law enforcement as a tool to match an unknown face to another face in its database of billions of photos which it has hoovered from online sources such as Facebook and YouTube.

The app made a loud entry into the public debate earlier this year following a New York Times feature and the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner is currently conducting an inquiry into the company.

Biometric: Federal Police admit to using controversial facial recognition system

Reports emerged that the facial recognition tool had been used by Australian police officers. This was flat-out denied by the Australian Federal Police, which subsequently knocked back a number of Freedom of Information requests, saying there was no information to provide.

But in answer to a Parliamentary Joint Committee on Information and Security question on notice from shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus, the AFP has now conceded that seven of its officers had utilised a free trial of the tool.

Between 2 November 2019 and 22 January 2020, members of the AFP-led Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) registered for a free trial of Clearview AI and conducted a “limited pilot of the system in order to ascertain its suitability”.

This was done to help with efforts to “counter child exploitation”, the AFP said.

“These searches included images of known individuals, and unknown individuals related to current or past investigations relating to child exploitation,” the AFP answer said.

This is in direct contradiction to the AFP’s earlier comments on Clearview AI. It appears it may have been unaware that the ACCCE team had tried out the controversial service.

“Outside of the ACCCE Operational Command there was no visibility that this trial had commenced,” the AFP said.

“The AFP is continuing to review this matter internally. It is our understanding that, accepting the limited pilot outlined above, that no other areas or individuals have utilised the Clearview AI product or engaged with the company.

“The AFP has not adopted the facial recognition platform Clearview AI as an enterprise product and has not entered into any formal procurement arrangements with Clearview AI.”

Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton needs to explain whether the use of this unaccountable and untested service has jeopardised any of these investigations, Mr Dreyfus said.

“The Home Affairs minister must explain whether the use of Clearview without legal authorisation has jeopardised AFP investigations into child exploitation,” Mr Dreyfus said in a statement.

“The use by AFP officers of private services to conduct official AFP investigations in the absence of any formal agreement or assessment as to the system’s integrity or security is concerning.”

According to a Clearview AI company statement, the tool is no longer in operation in Australia.

“At this time, the app is no longer operational in Australia. We will respond to government inquiries concerning the use of our highly effective, ground-breaking technology, about which there has been worldwide interest,” it said.

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