TO LEARN MORE, I spoke with Ryan Gable, a police constable in Montgomery County, Texas. We met in Gable’s Precinct 3 office, where dark wood shelves behind his desk hold personal mementos, including Texan football souvenirs, family photos, and a humorous quote: “I love you more than bacon.”
First elected to head Precinct 3 in 2012, Gable has served in law enforcement since 1993. He began his career investigating narcotics as an undercover officer in neighboring Harris County (home of Houston). With a staff of 80, including 69 officers, Precinct 3 serves a growing population of more than 250,000 residents.
In 2019, Gable’s precinct purchased a facial recognition software app from Clearview AI, a private tech startup that provides a facial recognition search system for police. He’d heard about the software while attending a meeting of private investors evaluating various technologies for use by law enforcement. After a free 2-3 month trial use of the app, the precinct purchased a discounted license.
Government and commercial entities are implementing FRT at an increasing pace, and no national law or policy regulates its use.
Here’s how the software works: A police official uploads a person’s image into the app, which returns a series of possible identity matches. The software compares the image against other images in Clearview’s database—3 billion total, according to the company. Clearview assembled its massive database by scraping images posted online, including those in public social media accounts on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook. It claims 2,400 law enforcement agencies worldwide use its system.
According to Gable, the app has proven valuable in multiple cases. He describes one particular fraud investigation: Using counterfeited driver’s licenses, someone withdrew money from bank accounts throughout Texas, stealing the identities of 17 individuals.
One bank’s surveillance video provided a particularly clear image, which the Precinct 3 criminal investigative division ran through the Clearview app. The software produced mugshots found via Google of a female who, after further police investigation, became the suspect in the case. Police haven’t yet found her, but an open warrant for her arrest is visible to any officer who might pull her over for a traffic violation.
Facial recognition doesn’t necessarily provide police with an automatic suspect. But Gable says the Clearview app has provided his investigators with leads in situations where none existed, including cases of robbery, shoplifting, online solicitation of a minor, and home invasions in Houston. The technology can also help track down a known victim or suspect.
Losing access to facial recognition would be a significant loss for Gable’s investigators. “Particularly for technology crimes,” Gable says, “with video and pictures of young people being abused, the biggest impact is not being able to identify victims in horrible situations.”
Although his department also uses other means of investigation—including social media, internet searches, and in-person inquiries by boots-on-the-ground officers—Gable claims the app gives police a distinct ability to put names to anonymous people in videos.
Others agree. Former New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill called facial recognition technology a “uniquely powerful tool in our most challenging investigations.” Sheriff Bob Gualtieri of Pinellas County, Fla., told NBC News, “The technology has changed policing almost entirely for the better.”