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‘Dystopian’: New York DA used funds seized from its citizens to pay for facial recognition tech

The documents were obtained by the Legal Aid Society.


Jacob Seitz


Posted on May 4, 2022   Updated on May 9, 2022, 9:46 am CDT

The Staten Island District Attorney used asset forfeiture to pay for controversial facial recognition software Clearview AI, according to documents obtained today by the Legal Aid Society.

Richmond County District Attorney Michael McMahon used funds from the Federal Equitable Sharing Program—an asset forfeiture program that allows law enforcement access to funds seized by local and state police by using federal asset seizure law—to buy the software for one year in May 2019. Asset forfeiture is a term for the seizing of property or money by law enforcement that is “forfeited” to the departments, which essentially take over the money or property seized.

The Equitable Sharing program expands on this, allowing local law enforcement to circumvent state law and “forfeit” the property or funds federally, allowing the departments to keep more money—up to 80 percent—after an investigation to make sure the seizure was lawful. In either case, charges do not have to be filed for assets to be seized. While New York has regulations on civil forfeiture, the federal program helps departments circumvent those.

According to the New York-based legal non-profit The Legal Aid Society, documents it obtained through a January 2021 Freedom of Information Law request showed that McMahon paid $10,000 for one year of Clearview AI for eleven employees. The source of the money remained a mystery until Legal Aid obtained these new documents.

According to the documents, reviewed by the Daily Dot, in response to the Legal Aid Society’s FOIL request about how the program was paid for, the DA’s office said that “the funding for Clearview came from the Equitable Sharing Program.”

The January 2021 documents also exposed the unlimited nature of the Clearview application in Richmond County, potentially allowing the service to be used on relatively minor charges. Clearview AI is a facial recognition startup that created a massive database of people’s images by scrubbing them from the internet. It sells its services to government agencies and police departments.

Law enforcement’s use of Clearview has come under fire in the past year, with lawmakers writing letters to various federal law enforcement agencies in February calling for the agencies to stop using the technology because it poses “a serious threat to the public’s civil liberties and privacy rights.” Facial recognition tech also has a distinct racial bias, as noted by the lawmakers, citing a National Institute of Standards and Technology study that found Black, Brown, and Asian people were “up to 100 times more likely to be misidentified than white male faces.” 

“The revelation that the funds used to access the Clearview AI service was derived from property obtained without due process, from the same individuals who are most at risk to the devastating consequences of its flaws, is nearly dystopian,” said Diane Akerman, staff attorney with the Digital Forensics Unit at The Legal Aid Society, in a press release.

Earlier this week, lawmakers from the House Committee on Oversight and Reform pressed the Department of Justice to crack down on Equitable Sharing Program abuses, saying they were “concerned that DOJ does not conduct adequate oversight of law enforcement agencies participating in the Equitable Sharing Program” and that some agencies were receiving money from a case despite having “no discernable role in the underlying seizure.”

The Staten Island DA did not respond to a request for comment from the Daily Dot.

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*First Published: May 4, 2022, 3:37 pm CDT