Mounting public pressure puts brakes on Detroit's facial-recognition technology 

click to enlarge SHUTTERSTOCK
  • Shutterstock


As Congress and a rising number of cities contemplate banning facial-recognition technology, the City of Detroit is trying to expand its controversial and constitutionally murky system.

But mounting, last-minute pressure persuaded the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners to delay a vote last Thursday on approving the use of the technology and expanding it to cameras being installed at intersections. That same day, elected officials in Somerville, Mass., became the second city to ban the technology.

The Metro Times reported last month that the city of Detroit had been using facial-recognition technology to arrest people for two years without the mandated approval of the police commission. A day later, during a hastily prepared press conference, Detroit Police Chief James Craig was evasive and dismissive when asked about constitutional concerns and documented racial bias.

"How come we never talk about the criminals," the chief said when asked how he balances privacy rights with crime-fighting.

Detroit's $1-million face-scanning system enables police to identify and track residents captured on hundreds of private and public high-definition cameras installed at parks, schools, immigration centers, gas stations, churches, abortion clinics, hotels, apartments, fast-food restaurants, and addiction treatment centers. Police can identify people at any time using databases containing hundreds of thousands of photos, including mugshots, driver's licenses, and images scraped from social media.

The software can tap into police body cams and Detroit's controversial Project Green Light, an initiative that began in 2016 with surveillance cameras at late-night locations like gas stations and fast-food restaurants. It has since expanded to include parks, schools, health clinics, hotels, apartments, lower-income housing, and churches. There are now more than 500 Green Light locations.

Mayor Mike Duggan, who played an influential role in using the system, has refused to talk about the technology.

At a commission meeting earlier this month, Police Commissioner Willie Burton called for a ballot initiative so residents can decide whether they want the city to use facial recognition technology. The commission rejected his proposal and also declined to support his call for a public hearing on the issue.

"The public has a right to weigh in," Burton tells the Metro Times. "This is being forced on people. The public was never notified."

On Thursday last week, Burton's microphone was turned off after he complained about a lack of transparency on the commission.

The commission is expected to take up the issue again this week.

On Monday, U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib blasted the city's use of the technology.

"When is it okay to scan people's faces without public notice & input?" Tlaib tweeted. "What is worse is the fact that studies have shown that the technology makes false IDs because it doesn't recognize Black & Brown faces. But a city with over 85% Black population decided to use it anyways."

During recent congressional hearings, experts said Detroit and Chicago are the first cities in the nation to use facial-recognition technology that is capable of working in real time. Similar systems are being used by the FBI and other federal agencies at border crossings and airports.

"With little to no input, the city of Detroit created one of the nation's most pervasive and sophisticated surveillance networks with real-time facial-recognition technology," Tlaib said during the May 22 hearing. "Policing our communities has become more militarized and flawed. Now we have for-profit companies pushing so-called technology that has never been tested in communities of color, let alone been studied enough to conclude that it makes our communities safer."

Tlaib, whose district includes Detroit, added, "People's freedom is at stake."

Congressional members and legal experts said the technology may violate the fourth and 14th amendments, as well as threaten free speech. Police use the surveillance tool without search warrants, and the technology is faulty and most inaccurate when scanning people of color, experts say.

"We need to start this process over from the beginning so the public can weigh in on it," Burton says.

Community activist Tom Choske said the public was blindsided by the technology.

"We want to let the community know about this policy and the pitfalls of it, and to ensure that the public has their voice heard," Choske says.

Stay on top of Detroit news and views. Sign up for our weekly issue newsletter delivered each Wednesday.

Best Things to Do In Detroit

Newsletters

Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.