Pittsburgh police officers accessed the facial recognition technology Clearview AI over the course of a year, including during Black Lives Matter protests last summer. The use of the technology violated police policy and, in some later cases, broke city law. 

Email records obtained via a public records request show 10 Pittsburgh Bureau of Police officers signed up for Clearview trial accounts between December 2019 and December 2020. Seven officers had trial accounts in June, at the height of local and national Black Lives Matter protests.

Pittsburgh Public Safety spokesperson Cara Cruz said members of the bureau were working with other agencies that were already using Clearview following the Black Lives Matter protests on May 30 and June 1. “As a result, some Pittsburgh Police members did try the technology during that time period,” Cruz wrote in an email to PublicSource, adding that it was done without the knowledge or permission of police command staff.

Employees of the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office also signed up for Clearview trials during the protests, PublicSource previously reported, though email records do not indicate if it was used in relation to the demonstrations. The office would not comment on whether it was used in partnership with the Pittsburgh police.

Councilman Corey O’Connor, who sponsored the bill regulating facial recognition, said it was intended to make sure the city and public safety department were transparent when considering such technologies. He said he was concerned that they could be used during protests or demonstrations, heightening the need to have regulations on the books.

“We will continue to monitor this situation to make sure that the City follows the new regulations, but it is important for Council and the public to know exactly how and why officers used facial recognition technologies after the regulations went into effect,” he wrote in an email statement to PublicSource.

That officers accessed Clearview in violation of the city ordinance is “extremely troubling,” said state Rep. Ed Gainey, Pittsburgh’s Democratic nominee for mayor, in an email to PublicSource.

Clearview is a controversial startup that scrapes photos from the internet and compiles them into a database for law enforcement’s use. While some law enforcement officials have praised the app as a useful tool for solving crimes, it has been criticized by lawmakers, privacy advocates and the social media companies it relies on for data. 

Screenshot of a June 8, 2020 email obtained from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police.

Clearview is used only by law enforcement to help identify criminal suspects after a crime, Clearview founder Hoan Ton-That wrote in an email statement to PublicSource. Ton-That said it is not intended to be used as a surveillance tool related to peaceful protests or under any other circumstances.

In September, City Council passed a law prohibiting facial recognition use except when approved by council or in extreme circumstances. Accounts linked to two officers, Frank Niemiec and Michael Lewis, were logged into after that law passed, in violation of the ordinance.

Some members of the bureau used Clearview for investigations, but it did not result in any arrests or prosecution, Cruz wrote, and the technology is not being used in any active cases.

Following PublicSource’s April 6 inquiry, members of the bureau were told in a memo early this month that they are not authorized to use facial recognition other than JNET, a statewide tool available to all Pennsylvania law enforcement agencies, Cruz wrote. Deputy Chief Thomas Stangrecki issued additional guidance reminding the bureau of the ordinance and restrictions on the use of facial recognition, including the need to seek permission before using any free trials.

An April Buzzfeed News investigation on Clearview use by U.S. law enforcement agencies revealed members of the bureau had made searches with Clearview, prompting a PublicSource inquiry to the bureau and resulting in the bureau conducting an internal investigation into staff members’ correspondence with Clearview

Buzzfeed News found the Pittsburgh police made between 100 and 500 searches on Clearview from 2018 to February 2020. That number doesn’t include searches made after those dates.

Cruz said all correspondence between Clearview and police staff occurred without the approval or knowledge of police command staff.  A June 10, 2020 email between Clearview and city police indicates that Lt. Art Baker was aware some officers were using a pilot version of Clearview. Baker is a supervisor in his unit but not a member of command staff, Cruz said. 

Several additional officers received invitations to sign up or requested access to the app, but it is unclear if they ultimately created accounts. 

Update (5/24/21): This story was updated to include comment from Rep. Ed Gainey.

Juliette Rihl is a reporter for PublicSource. She can be reached at juliette@publicsource.org or on Twitter at @julietterihl.

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Juliette Rihl

Juliette Rihl reports on criminal justice, public safety and mental health for PublicSource. Her 2020 series on how court debt impacts low-income Allegheny County residents prompted the county to join...