The Hidden Hand Of Facial Recognition In The Capitol Insurrection Manhunt

The highly controversial tool isn’t just for the feds anymore. Online sleuths are quietly using it to hunt for rioters — like the man they've dubbed #NaziGrayHat.
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost

At 19, Matthew Jason Beddingfield was charged with first-degree attempted murder for allegedly shooting another teenager in the head in the parking lot of a North Carolina Walmart. Police said Beddingfield fled the scene in a Dodge Charger, but turned himself in the next morning, on Dec. 14, 2019. He was held in jail on $1 million bond, and was released a few weeks later when the bond was lowered to $100,000. He was still awaiting trial when the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States.

The shooting received heavy news coverage in North Carolina, and numerous mug shots and photos of Beddingfield appeared online. The defendant’s father, Jason Beddingfield, spoke to reporters and said his son had shot the 17-year-old because he’d been robbed.

Just over a year after Matthew Beddingfield was released from jail ahead of trial, a mob of insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol in support of outgoing President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Jason Beddingfield was there on Jan. 6. “We are here to take this country back from those commie bastards,” Beddingfield, 52, wrote in a Facebook post that featured photos of the crowd in front of the Washington Monument for Trump’s speech.

Jason Beddingfield admits he made his way to the Capitol on Jan. 6. Videos discovered by citizen sleuths and by HuffPost show a man who looks identical to Jason Beddingfield hopping over barriers while holding a Trump flag and storming past bike racks moments after members of the mob ripped them down. At the same time, approaching the Capitol via a different path, a young man holding an American flag led a crowd and shouted at the police. Soon the young man was brawling with cops at the front of the police line. He later entered the Capitol building, and emerged from the Senate side after being pepper-sprayed.

The young man bore a striking resemblance to Jason Beddingfield’s son Matthew.

Trump supporters protest outside the Capitol Building on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Inset: Matthew Beddingfield's mug shot.
Trump supporters protest outside the Capitol Building on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Inset: Matthew Beddingfield's mug shot.
Amy Harris/Shutterstock/Mugshot

This similarity might never have come to light without the use of a highly controversial technology. A member of a network of citizen sleuths plugged images of the man ― whom online insurrection investigators dubbed #SoggyKidInsider, because he later emerged from the Capitol covered in liquid, and #NaziGrayHat, because he appeared to give a Sieg Heil salute ― into PimEyes, a facial recognition website. One of Matthew Beddingfield’s mug shots popped up.

Matthew Beddingfield did not answer HuffPost’s calls. Jason Beddingfield told HuffPost that his son wasn’t at the Capitol on Jan. 6, and that indeed Matthew had never been there before at all.

Jason and Matthew Beddingfield had, in fact, traveled to D.C. before, for a November rally in support of Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results. Matthew, as seen in photos his father posted on Facebook, was carrying an American flag tied to a pole with a red string, and wearing black shoes that featured a reversed Nike swoosh logo. The young man at the front of the police line on Jan. 6, #SoggyKidInsider, was carrying an identical flagpole and wearing the same shoes. (The shoes resemble the Nike Zoom Freak 1 shoes that came out in 2019, the year Matthew Beddingfield was arrested for attempted murder.)

Those small clues would likely not have been enough for citizen sleuths, or law enforcement, to make the connection. Unlike some people who were at the Capitol that day, #SoggyKidInsider didn’t give his name to a livestreamer after assaulting police officers with a fire extinguisher. He wasn’t wearing his high school varsity jacket to the insurrection, and unlike so many of the Jan. 6 rioters, it doesn’t appear that he bragged about his exploits on social media (although he was recording on his phone). #SoggyKidInsider still hasn’t been added to the FBI’s “wanted” page for Capitol suspects, only the less high-profile list of suspects maintained by the Metropolitan Police Department in D.C.

But the expanded civilian use of programs like PimEyes made the ID possible. Facial recognition tools use one or more pictures of an individual to pull their biometric facial characteristics, and run them against an often gargantuan database of photos to find possible matches. In criminal justice matters, this can help create a narrowed pool of suspects.

This software is not always accurate, though ― and its use bears serious implications for privacy, freedom of expression and other civil liberties.

Like other law enforcement agencies across the country, the FBI uses facial recognition technology, though it says it follows a set of policies and best practices to ensure “public safety can take place without interfering with our fundamental values.” Even so, it’s controversial; the American Civil Liberties Union has sued the FBI and leading facial recognition firm Clearview AI, which offers its services to the bureau, over their use of the technology.

Such concerns are intensified when amateur sleuths get hold of these powerful tools and wield them, without any oversight, to identify people at protests and other political events. Critics say that, in their race to ID the overwhelmingly white insurrectionists, these sleuths also risk contributing to the normalization of technology that disproportionately harms people of color.

“What these folks are doing is they are engaging in a kind of amateur detective hour,” said Kathleen Ruane, senior legislative counsel for the ACLU. “They’re using a tool that is currently available to them, and it is legal for them to use. The question we should be asking is: Should it be? And under what circumstances?”

Facial recognition is controversial within the #SeditionHunters community, too, and people were hesitant to be associated with an article about the practice. One person who helped ID the Beddingfields, speaking anonymously, said it was “frightening” that someone could “become a professional stalker” by subscribing to an online service that costs a dollar a day.

“Anybody with a pulse, a credit card, and $29.99 can get into the sleuthing business,” this person said.

While the FBI has to deal with various bureau and state regulations concerning the use of facial recognition — including a set of rules that “strictly governs the circumstances in which facial recognition tools may be utilized” and requires “human review and additional investigation” — citizen investigators can generate leads that they can send to the FBI “clean” of any indication that facial recognition was used. The FBI, using its far broader resources and investigative tools, can carry the baton from there.

“I’m not telling the FBI, ‘Oh, by the way, I ran facial recognition software,’” said the person who helped identify the Beddingfields and submitted other tips to the FBI.

Behind the scenes, facial recognition is playing a large, if obscured, role in the FBI investigation into the events of Jan. 6. There appears to have only been one case in which the FBI was clear about using the technology. A criminal complaint against Robert Maurice Reeder notes that the Harford County State’s Attorney’s Office in Maryland submitted a tip to the FBI the day after the Capitol riot, noting “that facial recognition software identified two Maryland residents as possible matches for BOLO photo #14, published by the FBI on January 6, 2021.” Reeder contacted the FBI through his attorney on Jan. 19, and he was charged on Feb. 24.

Still, the public acknowledgement of facial recognition technology in just one of the more than 300 cases brought in connection with the Capitol attack doesn’t tell the whole story.

Clearview AI saw a 26% spike in search volume in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection. It has a database of more than 3 billion images and is primarily used by private companies and law enforcement agencies. Members of the #SeditionHunters community are unable to access Clearview. Instead, they’re using PimEyes, a lesser-known Polish company offering free and paid facial recognition services to the public, through a search engine that reportedly contains more than 900 million faces. Like Clearview, PimEyes has prompted serious concerns about misuse, abuse, privacy and civil liberties violations. (Both companies have argued that their services are legal because they only use publicly available images, and have likened their tools to other search engines.)

A slow-moving digital dragnet is still coming for the insurrectionists. But as the three-month anniversary of the Jan. 6 riot approaches, the pace of the FBI’s bureaucracy remains frustrating for the citizen sleuths who believe they have identified dozens and dozens of people the feds have yet to arrest.

The man dubbed #SoggyKidInsider (in the foreground, holding the flag) at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
The man dubbed #SoggyKidInsider (in the foreground, holding the flag) at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT / AFP via Getty Images

If he entered the Capitol with his phone on, Matthew Beddingfield was likely eventually going to be arrested anyway. Any phone that was on in the Capitol building left digital breadcrumbs that are likely to lead, sooner or later, to a knock at the door.

But hundreds of Capitol rioters are still at large, and the FBI still needs help building cases. And Beddingfield is just one of many potential suspects whom sleuths have identified through open-source work combined with a bit of help from facial recognition technology.

HuffPost is aware of several other Capitol suspects whom sleuths believe they have identified with help from the technology, including a suspect seen pepper-spraying officers and a man on the FBI list for assaulting officers. The evidence isn’t completely definitive, but visually and by other clues, both men are very strong matches.

The first suspect, the one seen pepper-spraying officers, matches with a man who previously gave an interview outside a Trump rally and appeared at a Tea Party rally a decade ago. HuffPost made calls to the man’s family and co-workers (after informing the FBI of the hashtag, but not the name, of the suspect we were looking at, to make sure we weren’t interfering with an ongoing investigation). We were able to confirm the man is a huge Trump fan. None of the four people we spoke with denied that the man was at the Capitol, and several were coy about whether they knew he’d been there. One said it would be “up to him to tell you” whether he was at the Capitol or not. The man himself did not respond to several messages, including an email featuring a photo of the man believed to be him on Jan. 6.

A high-quality image of the second suspect, which the FBI recirculated this week, turns up an image from A search of his name pulls up several additional photos of a man who bears a striking resemblance to the suspect. The man has a long history of right-wing activism, and recently deleted his personal Facebook page. The FBI had already received tips about him when they recirculated his photo, and there’s a possibility they may have posted his image again to generate tips from someone who knows him rather than someone who used a facial recognition app.

But HuffPost has not yet been able to fully confirm either identity, demonstrating both the promise and the limits of IDs based solely on a match from a program like PimEyes.

Sleuths understand why the technology is controversial, but they see it as an investigative shortcut. There’s a system of ethics within the #SeditionHunters community, and tipsters are highly discouraged from using names on social media. They aren’t supposed to drop names based on facial recognition hits alone. But it’s helping them make critical connections and build a list of potential suspects.

The FBI declined to comment on any investigation into Jason or Matthew Beddingfield. But Jason Beddingfield, who could face potential charges himself in connection with the Capitol attack, says the facial recognition software must have misidentified his son.

The 52-year-old confirmed that he himself spent all day at the protest. Working with online sleuths who have joined the #SeditionHunters network, HuffPost traced a man who clearly appears to be Jason Beddingfield hopping over barriers in front of the Capitol, moving up to the front of the police line, and standing with the mob as they battled with police on the platform where Joe Biden would later be inaugurated. Wearing a neon-colored hat and carrying a giant blue Trump flag featuring the “Don’t Tread on Me” snake, he wasn’t too tough to follow.

That man was at the front of the police line, and potentially has criminal exposure. But the potential charges against #SoggyKidInsider, the young man who’s a dead ringer for Jason Beddingfield’s son Matthew, could be much more serious: He can be seen battling with police by jabbing a flagpole at them, entering the Capitol building and facing off with officers at the front of the mob storming the building.

Jason Beddingfield, in long conversations with a HuffPost reporter, continued to insist that his son wasn’t at the Capitol.

“He was not there, he was not with me. He did not do the things that have been speculated about,” he said. “I mean, there’s a lot of doppelgangers in the world, isn’t it? All technology is not foolproof, is it?”

It’s true that no technology is foolproof — including facial recognition. At least three Black men have been wrongfully arrested as a result of being misidentified by facial recognition tech. In fact, many such tools falsely identify Black and Asian faces 10 to 100 times more than white faces, according to a 2019 study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. There are also significant gender disparities when it comes to the accuracy of facial recognition software.

One citizen sleuth ran a photo of a male HuffPost reporter through PimEyes. It pulled up photos of him throughout his journalistic career: from reporting from the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, to questioning former Attorney General William Barr about Robert Mueller’s special counsel report. It also surfaced several images he’d never seen before that feature him reporting from the U.S. Capitol, even photos in which he was way in the back of a crowd of people. But the results were far less accurate for a female HuffPost reporter: Photos of her face returned only a handful of matches through PimEyes. Most other results featured explicit images of porn actresses.

“I’m not telling the FBI, "Oh, by the way, I ran facial recognition software."”

- A citizen sleuth who has submitted tips to the FBI

At the end of the day, some civil liberties advocates say, the potential for harm with facial recognition software far outweighs the potential for good.

“I don’t really know what positive uses there are for a technology that disproportionately misidentifies people of color, trans people [and] young people, when it’s this inaccurate and biased,” Ruane said.

In Matthew Beddingfield’s case, however, there’s plenty more evidence than just a facial recognition software match to suggest that he was indeed at the Capitol on Jan. 6. And despite his father’s claims to HuffPost, Matthew has been there at least once before. There’s proof of that on Jason’s own Facebook profile: photos of him and his son posing on Capitol grounds on the day of the Million MAGA March in November, and photos of his son marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, wearing those shoes. Asked about this, the elder Beddingfield was coy.

“It’s one of those things, it’s a bit of an enigma,” he said. He added that he had no comment on whether the FBI had been in contact with his family, and suggested HuffPost investigate Biden’s supposed theft of the election instead.

“There was a man that was lawfully elected president, and the deep state, through subversion and subterfuge, installed a zombie of a man named Joe Biden to be the unlawful president of the United States of America,” he said. “That’s an historical story. The stuff that you’re chasing after is like dust floating through a hurricane. It doesn’t mean anything.”

A pastor who knows Jason Beddingfield, and had posted photos of Beddingfield and his wife on his Facebook page, made a Facebook post about the events at the Capitol shortly after they took place. The pastor wrote that “violence and lawlessness is never the answer.” Someone in the comments disagreed.

“There are many documentation [sic] times in the bible where God commands the Children of Israel to take up swords,” the person wrote. “Sometimes God expects action from his people along with prayer.” Jason Beddingfield liked the post.

HuffPost sent the pastor who knows the Beddingfield family three photos of #SoggyKidInsider, asking if he recognized him.

“I don’t want to comment on that. Thanks,” the pastor responded. He also said he needed to do his own investigating.

But as even Matthew Beddingfield’s own lawyer in the attempted murder case admitted, the resemblance between his client and #SoggyKidInsider is striking.

“Well, I’m looking at your pictures, and I reckon that could be him, I don’t know,” his lawyer said after HuffPost emailed him the photos. “I appreciate you sending me that. I would tell you I don’t have any comment. Frankly, you’ve caught me by surprise.”

Local authorities know about the allegations. Assistant District Attorney Kristin Terwey, who works for the office that is prosecuting the 2019 shooting at the Walmart, confirmed she had received information about Matthew Beddingfield’s possible presence at the Capitol, but said she could not comment on the “status of the investigation of the matter.”

“I am aware of the allegations, but I can’t make any further comment,” Terwey said. “I’ve heard of the allegations. I’ve been made aware of those.”

It may be tough to close the barn door on facial recognition completely. As it becomes more widespread, the ability to match images of individuals to other publicly available photos is something that could be difficult to regulate in the global internet era. Even sites like Facebook use a version of the technology: The social media network can already notify you when another user posts a photo you might be featured in.

But Ruane believes “a federal law that regulates this sort of thing, and regulates the companies that are providing these tools to these sleuths,” is needed to mitigate the risk of serious harm that facial recognition technology poses.

A related law already exists in Illinois. The Biometric Information Privacy Act prohibits companies that do business in the state from collecting and storing people’s biometric information without their consent, and enables individuals to sue for damages caused by violations. The ACLU cites this law in its suit against Clearview. It has also asked the Biden administration to place a moratorium on all federal uses of facial recognition technology and biometric surveillance.

“There is something significantly concerning about a sort of mass ability to use processes that permit anybody to collect and use our biometric characteristics, without any standards oversight or control of the people to whom those biometric characteristics pertain,” Ruane said.

For now, though, sleuths are free to use these tools as they wish. They’re hopeful that the FBI will quickly arrest Matthew Beddingfield, whom they believe they were able to identify using PimEyes.

“I would say that his vast sense of invulnerability is only surpassed by the magnitude of his utter stupidity,” one sleuth said.

Roque Planas contributed reporting.

Popular in the Community


What's Hot