The Bucks County commissioners dropped a contract for facial-recognition services from their agenda Wednesday after residents objected to a potential high-tech threat to privacy.
The agenda available Tuesday listed an agreement with Clearview AI “to provide assistive technology for law enforcement” for $25,995. That was removed in an updated agenda available Wednesday.
New York-based Clearview AI provides facial-recognition software that helps police identify suspects. Critics including the American Civil Liberties Union have challenged how the artificial-intelligence technology is used and whether a person’s “faceprint” can be collected and used for commercial purposes without consent.
Clearview AI’s website says the company’s database includes more than 3 billion facial images gleaned from public sources, such as social media, news websites and mugshots. A picture posted on Facebook, for example, could wind up in their files. Federal, state and local law enforcement use the service, according to Clearview AI.
In March, the New York Times reported on facial-recognition tracking in a story, “Your Face Is Not Your Own.”
“It deeply disturbs me that this was even on the agenda,” George Price of Morrisville said at the board meeting in Doylestown. He said Clearview AI has engaged in “questionable practices” that have resulted in scrutiny and litigation.
In an email comment, Nicole Weerbrouck of New Britain Township warned the county against a law-enforcement tool that uses what she called unregulated technology.
“This technology has advanced faster than our ability to legislate,” Weerbrouck said. “We should not entertain using a service that wants us to demolish our first and fourth Amendment rights.”
The first amendment to the Constitution protects freedom of expression while the fourth amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.
Weerbrouck said facial recognition is not infallible, and errors can lead to legal problems for people falsely identified.
Chairwoman Diane Ellis-Marseglia said the agenda item was dropped because of the public outcry.
“We want to look at it a little bit further,” she said.
In a statement to WFMZ, Clearview AI founder Hoan Ton-That, an Australian, said:
“We believe in the responsible use of facial recognition software to help law enforcement solve crimes. Clearview AI can only be used as an after-the-fact investigative tool. It cannot be used for real-time surveillance. We only collect publicly available photos from the open internet that are accessible from any computer anywhere in the world.
Clearview AI requires law enforcement customers to provide a case number and crime type to ensure an audit trail and to enforce responsible usage of facial recognition. Search results from Clearview AI should never be used as the sole source for an arrest or identification. We provide training to our customers on how to use facial recognition responsibly.
As a person of mixed race, providing law enforcement with non-biased technology is important to me. Unlike other facial recognition technologies that have misidentified people of color, an independent study has indicated that Clearview AI has no racial bias. We know of no instance where Clearview AI’s technology has resulted in a wrongful arrest.
We are proud of the work we have done with law enforcement to make communities safer and battle crimes against children, financial fraud, and drug trafficking.”
The commissioners did not say when or if the contract might be brought up again.
In other business, the board and most county elected officials agreed to follow county anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies. Elected officials are not subject to rules that apply to employees, so a pledge to abide by the rules was made.
Commissioner Robert Harvie Jr. reported progress in the battle against COVID-19. He said 28% of adults in Bucks County have now been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and more than 50% will have had at least one shot by the end of the week.
Audrey Kenny, acting director of emergency services, said residents can sign up for vaccines on the county website.
“We have about 100,000 appointments available through June,” she said.
Commissioner Gene DiGirolamo asked that county residents remain vigilant as the pandemic continues to take lives.
“I lost an almost lifelong friend to the coronavirus. He was 68 years old,” DiGirolamo said.
“We can’t let our guard down,” he said, asking residents to continue to wear a mask even if they have been vaccinated, because “there’s still a lot about this disease we don’t know.”