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Staten Island DA purchased controversial social media facial recognition software

Using civil forfeiture cash.

Controversy-riddled Clearview AI facial recognition system has been used, and paid for, by Staten Island’s district attorney in some also fairly controversial ways, the Intercept claims, basing its report on city records.

The information, obtained via the Legal Aid Society and Freedom of Information requests show that despite its notoriety, the use of Clearview by prosecutors in this New York City borough has been “largely unsupervised.”

It is also said that the Staten Island District Attorney’s Office stopped using the technology last year.

And while it was used, records from 2019 to 2021 show, Clearview – that was supposed to help in identifying suspects and victims – was often a tool achieving a variety of other purposes. In some instances, it was to go through social media history of already identified individuals, such as homicide victims and what is referred to as “personnel.”

In one case, Clearview was put to work in a deportation case. This type of use is described by critics as broader than expected, and effectively creating a new type of social media surveillance.

Clearview has been criticized by privacy and civil rights advocates because it works by harvesting images of people from social platforms, and then selling this database to government entities who match photos against it for identification purposes. What makes the use of the tool particularly contentious is the fact that police and other agencies do not have to first obtain a search warrant.

The Staten Island District Attorney’s Office paid for Clearview from a Department of Justice program called Equitable Sharing. Under the program, assets seized from forfeiture get shared between state and federal law enforcement, while state and local police can also share the seizures with federal agencies. State and local law enforcement are allowed to keep up to 80 percent of these seizures.

The program is criticized as a means of circumventing rules in those states where asset seizures are limited in some ways, as is the case in the state of New York.

Critics now say that Staten Island paid for Clearview from funds obtained without due process – often taken from the same people who could suffer from the tool’s use.

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