Apr 23, 2021 - News
Des Moines metro police using controversial facial recognition tool
Illustration of a man whose face is obscured by digital glitches.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Several Des Moines metro police departments are using a controversial facial recognition tool that allows law enforcement to upload a person's photo and match it with other public images of them on the internet.

Why it matters: That photo you posted on Facebook or Instagram may be used by your local police department as a way to identify you without your knowledge or consent.

Driving the news: Earlier this month, Buzzfeed published a database of agencies and companies that have used a tool from US tech firm Clearview AI to identify people in their investigations.

  • Axios followed up with DSM-area police departments.

State of play: The Des Moines and Ankeny police departments are using the tool.

  • West Des Moines and Urbandale told Axios they do not use the technology.
  • Waukee police chief John Quinn did not respond to our repeated requests for comment, but the Buzzfeed database alleges the department has at least tested it.

How it works: Clearview AI scraped images from some of the largest public internet sites, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Venmo and LinkedIn to create a facial recognition database now used by hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the country.

What they're saying: "The safety and security benefits are obvious," said Sgt. Paul Parizek spokesperson for DMPD.

  • Parizek cited the benefit of facial recognition technology in identifying the shooter at The Capital Gazette's newsroom in 2018.
  • He also said it can help identify potential suspects, as well as missing or deceased people.

The other side: Using the app from Clearview AI is a breach of our right to privacy — especially since the company took data without consent, said Mark Stringer, executive director of ACLU of Iowa.

  • The technology is known to produce false positives for women and people of color — unnecessarily targeting them, he said.
  • It also could also chill First Amendment rights as protesters may feel hesitant to assemble if they know they're being monitored.
  • "The fact that this technology is being used without general knowledge is a concern," Stringer said.

What's next: Don't expect this to be the last time you hear about the ethics of facial recognition technology. A growing number of cities and even the state of New Jersey have voted to restrict it.

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