SPD Detective Receives One Day Suspension For Clearview AI Usage, OPA Says Not A Violation of Surveillance Ordinance

Photo by Scott Webb

Thanks to a Seattle Police Department (SPD) detective caught using facial recognition software—though, it turns out, it wasn’t his first surveillance-related reprimand—we wonder what, if anything, would constitute an SPD violation of Seattle’s Surveillance Ordinance since the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) has ruled use of both Clearview AI and drone photos of a personal residence in non-violation of the law. Similar questions arise around King County’s recent ban on facial recognition software.

In Closed Case Summary 2020OPA-0731, published on Thursday (July 1), Detective Nicholas Kartes (referred to as “NE#1”) admitted to using Clearview AI approximately 30 times—10 times on SPD cases and 20 times on cases for other departments, but did not keep records or notify his supervisors of his usage. He further claimed to have received zero matches on SPD cases and one match on a case for “a King County agency”, which he allegedly notified of his use of Clearview AI. OPA sustained one allegation of unprofessionalism against Kartes but did not find that he violated the law, specifically the Seattle Surveillance Ordinance.

Bridge Burner Collective, a group of police transparency activists, first uncovered Kartes’ use of Clearview AI in November 2020 when a public records request revealed he had logged into the app over 30 times from a computer on the City of Seattle network.

The detective has received a one day suspension without pay following an Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigation into his usage of Clearview AI.

Clearview AI is a controversial facial recognition app which matches user uploaded photos to billions of pictures scraped from the internet and social media websites without users’ consent, raising concerns around privacy and accuracy. The company’s founder also has well-documented ties to prominent far-right figures.

The OPA ultimately ruled that Kartes did not violate the law because Clearview AI does not fall under the criteria set forth by the Surveillance Ordinance as “surveillance technology”.

Seattle’s Surveillance Ordinance defines surveillance as “to observe or analyze the movements, behavior, or actions of identifiable individuals in a manner that is reasonably likely to raise concerns about civil liberties, freedom of speech or association, racial equity or social justice.”

The OPA argued that because Clearview AI (and facial recognition technology in general) identifies individuals, rather than tracks movement, behaviors, or actions, it does not fall under this definition. If this is the case, many technologies conventionally considered surveillance, such as SPD’s Automated License Plate Readers (previously reviewed under the Ordinance), would likely also not fall under this criteria for the same reason.

According to City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, however, the Council Central Staff’s analysis is that City departments must submit Privacy and Surveillance Assessments for any new “non-standard technology”, after which a determination about the qualification of that technology would be made. This would mean that, regardless of whether Clearview AI falls into the surveillance criteria, Kartes is in fact in violation of the Surveillance Ordinance because the app was used without first getting approval through this process.

“SMC 14.18.020.B.1 first requires a process for determining whether a specific technology that a department wishes to acquire is surveillance technology. ITD’s process requires City staff to submit a Privacy and Surveillance Assessment (PSA) before new non-standard technology may be acquired. The PSA is used to determine if a given technology meets the City’s definition of “surveillance technology” as defined by the City’s Surveillance Policy. The determination uses specific “exclusion criteria” and “inclusion criteria” in addition to the definition of Surveillance Technology (see below). Unless the facial recognition function is part of a use that is excluded from the surveillance provisions, it appears that facial recognition technology would, at a minimum, meet the “inclusion criteria” of personally identifiable information or “raising reasonable concerns about impacts to civil liberty, freedom of speech or association, racial equity, or social justice.”

Kartes’ use of the app for other police departments also raises questions around the circumstances under which he became involved in these cases. When questioned about the nature of the detective’s involvement in the case that turned up a match, OPA declined to comment and directed us to “obtain more information by filing a Public Disclosure Request”. (SPD has faced criticism due to long response times and its controversial practice of “grouping” requests of prolific requesters. SPD has grouped requests made by Bridge Burner Collective, which delays responses further.)

While the Closed Case Summary does not provide any further details about how Kartes was involved in the investigations, the situation recalls previous reporting on the FITlist. The FITlist was a secretive email listserv where cops from agencies across Washington state (including SPD) sent requests for those with access to facial recognition tools to run searches on their behalf. A thread from the list instructed officers to “not mention FITlist in your reports or search warrant affidavits.”

To his credit, Kartes claims he notified the “King County agency” he submitted the facial recognition match to that the match was found using Clearview AI. However, this behavior raises serious accountability questions regarding facial recognition technologies. With cross-department exchanges of facial recognition results, police departments no longer necessarily own the records of facial recognition searches used in their investigations, complicating efforts for accountability and transparency. Disclosing use of facial recognition software in an investigation would rely on the discretion of the investigating officer. Similarly, if technologies run up against the Surveillance Ordinance or the recent King County ban on facial recognition, police officers could evade regulations by simply asking other departments to run their facial recognition searches.

Interestingly, this is not Detective Kartes’ first run-in with the Surveillance Ordinance. The OPA file mentions another case report, 2020OPA-0305, in which Detective Kartes (referred to in the document as “NE#2”) used a personal drone to take pictures of a residence. In this investigation, OPA declared that while the detective “was in non-compliance with the [Surveillance Ordinance] law”, it chose not to sustain the allegation because “OPA does not know how many other officers in the Department are also unaware of or, potentially, do not understand this law and all of its requirements and parameters.” If the roles were changed, would SPD exonerate a civilian for not being aware of or understanding a law?

With little to no consequences for misconduct as criticism mounts against the OPA, it can hardly be surprising that officers like Detective Kartes are repeatedly caught flaunting laws and regulations.

Seattle Police Caught Using Clearview AI, Potentially Violating Surveillance Ordinance

According to records recently released by the Seattle Police Department (SPD), a detective working for SPD signed up for and used facial recognition app Clearview AI, which appears to be in violation of the City of Seattle’s Surveillance Ordinance.

Clearview AI is a facial recognition startup which landed itself in the midst of controversy in early 2020 when it was revealed that the company created an app which advertised the ability to match uploaded images to billions of pictures scraped from the internet and social media websites. Journalists also found well-documented ties between the startup’s founder Hoan Ton-That and far-right figures like Chuck Johnson and Mike Cernovich.

Released emails indicate that Nick Kartes, a detective on the South Precinct Burglary unit according to a staff roster obtained this summer, signed up for Clearview in September 2019 using his “@seattle.gov” work email address.

We can see through notifications sent by the service that he logged into the service over 30 times, as recently as April 22, 2020. Running WHOIS queries on IP addresses listed in these emails reveals that the devices used to log into Detective Kartes’ account were connected to the City of Seattle network.

In September 2019, Detective Kartes reached out to the company to request a phone call for assurances about the “security of the company and program” before advocating for the product among his “many connections in the Northwest region”. He proudly admits that he downloaded the app to his phone and “[did] some experimenting with it”, indicating that his searches were met with “great success”. From the emails, it is not clear whether his “experimenting” involved any active SPD investigations, but we can see that he used Clearview on the City network with an account associated with a City email address.

Regardless, Clearview AI clearly fits the criteria for “surveillance technology”, where “surveillance” is defined in the ordinance as “to observe or analyze the movements, behavior, or actions of identifiable individuals in a manner that is reasonably likely to raise concerns about civil liberties, freedom of speech or association, racial equity or social justice.”

As such, the SPD is expected to have gone through the process outlined in the ordinance before acquiring and deploying such technology. The process involves getting City Council approval, filling out a Surveillance Impact Report (SIR), and conducting community outreach. No SIR for Clearview AI is listed on the Surveillance Ordinance website and a quick search did not turn up City Council approval or community outreach attempts by SPD.

This follows an established pattern, highlighted this summer, where Seattle police regularly flaunt the law. The South Seattle Emerald reported that cops including Seattle Police Officer Guild chief Mike Solan listed their voter registration address as the police precinct, a violation of both election law and their own police manual (“Employees Shall Not Use a Department Mailing Address for Personal Reasons”). It is worth noting that Detective Kartes himself has a sustained OPA allegation for “Video and Audio Recording” from 2016, although the Closed Case Summary is not listed on the OPA website.

As they say, who watches the watchers?

Meet Trump’s wanna-be: Mike Solan

A chunk of Seattleites recognize Mike Solan as the head of the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild (SPOG)–the union that represents sworn police officers in Seattle–but the devil really is in the details. He’s violated the police manual on multiple occasions. As such, the city has both the right and obligation to seek his removal.

Just take a scroll through his Twitter account, established February 2020. Like any good Trump Boomer, he fills it with “ANTIFA” in all caps, retweets of far-right liar and milkshake enthusiast Andy Ngo, plethora of awkward hashtags, and more that I’ll dive into later.

Solan praised Trump’s failed and unconstitutional deployment of federal troops when they invaded Seattle’s sister-city, Portland. I repeat: Solan praised sending secret police taking protestors off the streets in unmarked rental cars and shooting unarmed protestors in the head with rubber bullets. Before a flood of lawsuits forced Trump to withdraw troops, Solan called the brutal crackdown a “success” and thought it would be A Very Good Idea to deploy the tactics here.

Mike Solan won his position as the SPOG president with an incredible 70% of the vote–well, of the 750 who voted anyway; there’s 1,250 in the guild. His campaign slogan “It’s time to get serious” eerily echoes Donald Trump’s advice to police officers when he said, “Please, don’t be too nice” while making arrests.

He has explicitly stated that he feels police are “under unreasonable levels of scrutiny both locally and nationwide”–despite the fact that there’s been only 12 days so far this year where police haven’t killed someone.

Solan also dog-whistled the far-right’s favorite anti-semitic George-Soros conspiracy theory. If this isn’t clear by now, the SPOG President is a little piece of the Trump cartel, carrying the brain-worm to the head of the most heavily-armed para-military force in Seattle.

But before Solan called for Seattle residents to be kidnapped off the street by militia in unmarked vans, and even before letting the city know SPD wouldn’t stop gassing the city or choking people to death, he opposed the popular police reform bill I-940. He pointed to his failed fight against I-940–that is, against slightly lowering the standard of “malice” people must prove police have in court and maybe training police better–as a praise-worthy notch in his resume. Even since before I-940 passed, he’s been repeating the same talking point: there’s nothing wrong with the police, it’s all the fake “anti-police narrative.”

Solan claimed I-940, a grassroots bill supported by almost 60% of voters in 2018, was “brought forth by unelected people that push social justice ideology.” Hm. Wonder what type of ideology Solan pushes. Strange how he, someone who wasn’t elected by Seattle or Washington residents, claims to actually represent “the people” while demonizing wildly popular and elected city council members as activists who’ve somehow seized power. (Fun fact: in 2014 FiveThirtyEight reported that only 12% of SPD officers lived in Seattle. So statistically, the majority of the cops who did vote for him don’t live in Seattle either.)

It’s profoundly undemocratic (not to mention ironic) for someone in a position of immense power who was not elected to then criticize a bill voted for by the majority of people while claiming to represent the “silent majority.” I’m not saying Mike Solan is a fascist, but an unelected person claiming to represent The True People while claiming grassroots campaigns and elected representatives are part of some shady conspiracy of “activists” to seize power is deeply reminiscent of things said by fascists. What is that “activism” he’s talking about? Oh right, it’s called “voting.” And he seems to be against it. Or, at minimum, likes lying about it.

The then-SPOG-candidate also made a campaign video of a last-minute ‘news conference’ he held the year prior, during which he declared a then-under-investigation death-by-police justified.

He also spoke at the Koch-brother-funded and conservative “think tank”–more like a lie tank–Heritage Foundation. This front group directly assists the Trump Administration, vomiting lies and tweaking “data” to further the climate crisis while working against any notion it exists. Nearly 70 of their former employees now work with Trump. We’re sure Solan was happy to be one step closer to his idol. After all, he did mirror Trump’s twitter handle in creating his own.

But being elected implies accountability, and Solan is also not a fan of that. While elected representatives have come out of their houses to actually talk to protestors who show up at their houses, Mike decided to hide and tweet about “#MOB justice” and “#FalseNarratives.” Huh, interesting. #FalseNarratives sound a whole lot like #FakeNews–even if Solan is the one routinely on Sinclair’s broadcast networks.

But back to his job–I guess. Solan’s antisemitic dog whistles, far-right pandering, anti-progressive and anti-democratic rhetoric aside, he doesn’t seem to actually care about the image of SPD at all. In fact, it seems he cares too much about just his own.

If he wanted to change the narrative, he’d actually look at what people say and try to counter in some way that doesn’t just call things he disagrees with #marxism and call police accountability “#UnreasonableActivism” while referring to Blue Lives Matter and “Defend Police” as the “#IgnoredMajority.” He wouldn’t be a regular on Fox and Friends. He wouldn’t retweet far-right conspiracy theory accounts. He wouldn’t call protesters “#DomesticTerrorists.” He wouldn’t call Black Lives Matter protests “assault.” He wouldn’t defend throwing blast balls at journalists and gassing people in their homes. He wouldn’t lie and demonize a journalist for ‘not reaching out to him or SPOG’ when the journalist always does and is ignored. He wouldn’t beg for Trump’s boot on Seattle’s neck. He wouldn’t do everything in his power to accelerate the rotting of SPD’s image. If he wanted to change the narrative, he could, but he doesn’t seem to want to do that.

But it does seem he wants to join the swamp. He has inserted himself, as a lesser deity, into the festering pantheon of far-right ideologues. And that seems to be his real goal: building a career as a media personality at the expense of SPD. He’s a grifter, like the grifters he emulates, using his position for personal gain, and that is, at the very least, a clear violation of police policy and possibly against the law.

Across all of Solan’s social media, he positions his profile descriptions and all the posts therein as the mouthpiece of the union itself. The Seattle Police Manual 5.125-POL 2(1) clearly states that “Employees Shall Not Post Speech That Negatively Impacts the Department’s Ability to Serve the Public.” But his social media is full of interviews he gives with white supremacist conspiracy theorists like Tucker Carlson, and posts that violate multiple SPD polices, from 5.001(10) (Employees Shall Strive to be Professional) to his flagrant violations of 5.140-POL (Bias Free Policing) clearly equating #Marxism with “evil” and #anarchists with criminals. Since both Marxism and anarchism are political ideologies, and “Political ideology” is item 10 on the list of “discernible personal characteristics” against which discrimination is explicilty not allowed, this couldn’t possibly be a more obvious and clear cut violation of SPD policy.

One of the more chilling aspects of his social media is also more subtle. Things get dark when you look into what he likes and who he follows. This includes the obvious federal and local law enforcement agencies, individual cops, right wing media personalities, and pro-law enforcement groups. But it also includes accounts like Q-anon conspiracy theorists and armed religious fanatics whose posts he occasionally likes. But perhaps the most chilling example of his likes came from 3 days after the murder of two activists and attempted murder of a third. While Solan didn’t post or like anything the day of the shooting, he did like an Ari Hoffman post of a news story from the conspiracy rag The Post Millennial. The story claims a Seattle Antifa group was arrested in Kenosha with riot gear, appearing to justify the murders there only a few days earlier by a teenage police cadet Kyle Rittenhouse.

This tiny indication of support for murderers Rittenhouse has gotten much louder. In interviews with media, Solan threatens protesters: “If these mob individuals bring a fight to my doorstep, they better be prepared for a significant response…I think your listenership understands what I’m referring to, that if they approach my property with intent to breach the property line, with an intent to conduct criminal activity, to hurt my family, it’s a different ball game here.” It is clear Solan relies on MyNorthwest’s more conservative audience and fellow Trump supporters to read between the lines. Solan does exactly what Trump does: Incite violence by painting a group of Black-led people as more violent than they are, and broadly as “criminals” and a “mob,” seemingly for justification of causing extra-judicial harm to them regardless of what they do or do not do.

A week after the attack in Kenosha, Solan is calling for more violence against activists, this time here in Seattle. And now he’s openly threatening journalists.

Seattle City Council should take this opportunity to review Solan’s campaign and social media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube) behavior in light of the Seattle Police manual (especially sections 5.001-POL(13) and 5.125-POL 2(1)) and take action to de-escalate the tension between the people and SPD. In some ways, this might violate the city’s contract with the union, which states that the employer (SPD and the city) has the right to “determine reasonable rules relating to acceptable employee conduct…[including] behavior which brings discredit to the employee in his/her capacity as a police officer, the Department or the City.”

If you’re concerned with Mike Solan’s behavior, you can file your own complaint against Solan via the OPA website. While facing cuts to get the SPD budget down, consider the following proposal: fire Solan first, followed by the 40% of officers who voted for him, followed by every officer with sustained complaints of dishonesty and excessive force.

The rhetoric he spews into the far-right media ecosystem, even in press interviews, and online as a public official is reminiscent of the brain-rotten authoritarian he praises. It seems like he heard Trump’s famous call to expand police brutality and thought to himself, “I should make this the core of my platform.”

And he did. This will not get better without an intervention. It’s time to remove Mike Solan before things get any worse.

Fusion Centers and the Far Right

On Juneteenth 2020, hacktivists using the Anonymous moniker released 269 gigabytes worth of emails, audio, video, and documents from law enforcement agencies and fusion centers in the U.S. (Fusion centers were established by the post-9/11 PATRIOT Act to facilitate information gathering sharing between local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.) In the wake of the #BlueLeaks disclosures, researchers on social media have pointed out that many fusion centers have published far-right conspiracy theories in their reports.

One such example we found is the debunked rumor, sourced from a known far-right outlet and boosted by Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, that participants in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) were “checking identification at barricades before entering the zone” and that “citizens and businesses [were] asked to pay a fee to operate within this area”. This rumor was reported as true in a report compiled by the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness.

Screenshot from a report from the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness
New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, “Anarchist Extremists Among ‘Autonomous Zone’ In Seattle”, June 12, 2020

We wondered if there were similar cases of far-right bias and disinformation in fusion centers in our state, so we reviewed public records requests to find out.

Bringing Everything InFOCUS

The Washington State Fusion Center publishes a situational awareness report called Information From Online Communities and Unclassified Sources (InFOCUS). The fusion center disseminates this report to various local and state law enforcement entities including the Seattle Police Department. Each issue contains links to articles, each accompanied by an excerpt pulled from that article. We found several copies of InFOCUS that were obtained via public records request, sorted by domain.

As we clicked through the links, we quickly noticed articles from well-known far-right and conspiracy websites such as The Daily Caller, Newsmax, even InfoWars.

SPLC Targeting Army Bases?

An issue of InFOCUS dated September 1, 2017 links to an article from the Daily Caller, a news source with well-documented ties to white nationalism, titled “SPLC Says Army Bases Are Confederate Monuments That Need To Come Down”.

A screenshot from InFOCUS summarizing a Daily Caller article about SPLC
InFOCUS, September 1, 2017

The article refers to this statement released by the Southern Poverty Law Center calling for Confederate statues to be taken down given their “potential to unleash more turmoil and bloodshed”. The statement was published on August 15, 2017, three days after the fatal car attack by a white supremacist that killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia. In context, it’s clear what “turmoil and bloodshed” refers to. But the Daily Caller twists these words to imply that SPLC is issuing veiled threats at army bases.

Additionally, an issue of InFOCUS from the two days earlier included an article blaming the violence on “emotional and antagonistic participants”, rather than, say, a man who espoused Nazi ideology driving his car into protesters.

A screenshot from InFOCUS summarizing a Politico article about Charlottesville
InFOCUS, August 30, 2017

It’s disturbing to see law enforcement using such plainly inflammatory and untrue information for situational awareness, but it follows a broader trend in law enforcement. The FBI first used the term “black identity extremist” in an intelligence assessment released August 3, 2017 and only abandoned it in July 2019, after many pointed out parallels to the FBI’s illegal COINTELPRO program which targeted the civil rights movement. In August 2017, the California State Terror Threat Assessment Center fusion center classified groups such as Black Lives Matter protesting an event with speakers affiliated with the alt-right movement as “known hate groups”.

A screenshot from a State Terror Threat Assessment Center email with the quote "Hate Groups Anticipated: ANTIFA, BAMN, Black Bloc, Black Lives Matter"
Email from California State Terror Threat Assessment Center, August 16, 2017

Stranger Things

As we continued digging, things got weirder. A Newsmax article titled “Report: Released JFK Docs Reveal Oswald’s ‘KGB Handler’” was linked from an issue of InFOCUS from April 27, 2018.

An screenshot from InFOCUS summarizing a Newsmax article about Lee Harvey Oswald's supposed connections to the KGB
InFOCUS, April 27, 2018

This theory that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by the Russian KGB is a well-known right-wing conspiracy theory that has been spread by groups such as the notoriously racist and anti-communist John Birch Society, whose ad in the December 15, 1963 issue of the New York Times is shown below. The implication of this conspiracy theory is to blame the presidential assassination on the Soviet Union and, in turn, left-wing communism.

An screenshot of a John Birch Society ad in the New York Times
John Birch Society ad in the New York Times, December 15, 1963

Setting aside the bizarreness of the conspiracy theory, there is no actionable intelligence in including this article in InFOCUS. So why include it if your intention is raising situational awareness?

No One is Illegal

While scouring through the copies of InFOCUS, we found that many headlines used the word “illegals” to refer to undocumented immigrants. “Illegal” is a politically loaded, racialized term used to dehumanize and reduce the identity of people on the basis of their (lack of) citizenship documentation.

Digging deeper into these headlines, we found that, of the seven times InFOCUS used “illegal” in its headline to refer to undocumented immigrants, three articles had originally used the word “undocumented” in their original headline. We found no instances where InFOCUS headlines used the term “undocumented”.

A screenshot of InFOCUS showing the InFOCUS headline using the word "illegal" while the URL uses "undocumented"
InFOCUS, December 1, 2017
A screenshot of InFOCUS showing the InFOCUS headline using the word "illegal" while the URL uses "undocumented"
InFOCUS, January 30, 2018
A screenshot of InFOCUS showing the InFOCUS headline using the word "illegal" while the URL uses "undocumented"
InFOCUS, October 27, 2017

This means that the writers of InFOCUS routinely and purposely editorialized to use a politically charged word to describe subjects of law enforcement.

Wrapping Up

Spreading a narrative built on far right propaganda and misinformation has real-world consequences. Documents from the #BlueLeaks hack show how law enforcement agencies and fusion centers exacerbated the anxieties of Minnesota police with similar unproven rumors, leading them to aggressively attack protesters with tear gas and less-lethal munitions. Similar stories have already come out after Charlottesville and out of states like California, Nevada, and Kentucky, and we foresee more findings in other states.

We contend that fusion centers exist to further infuse far right propaganda and ideology into the already racist and misogyny culture of police. By parroting ridiculous allegations of SPLC orchestrating attacks on army bases, anti-communist conspiracy theories, and by using explicitly politicized language like “illegals”, fusion centers are not neutral propagators of information; they are actively crafting a right-wing policing narrative.

We have seen many examples in the recent history of how the narrative promoted by the Washington State Fusion Center is embodied in the culture of Washington law enforcement agencies. We saw a sheriff’s office issue a half-hearted apology for sharing an “All Lives Splatter” meme the month after Charlottesville, making light of car attacks on protesters. We saw a police sergeant demoted for stalking a man who cursed at him to his workplace, jokingly calling it “community policing” as he sat outside. We saw an officer fired after being investigated by the Secret Service for making threats against political figures on social media. We saw an officer fired for physically abusing his ex-girlfriend and routinely making racist and sexist remarks about his coworkers. None of these incidents were brought to light by other officers, and it’s likely that there are many more that have not been exposed behind the blue wall of silence.

But why would they be? These behaviors are all in line with the culture reinforced by official intelligence updates from fusion centers.

This is not a problem of individual police officers. This is a system and culture that promotes, protects, and upholds these behaviors. These systems cannot be reformed. They are built to uphold and normalize abuse of power. The only option is abolition.