Democratic lawmakers introduce ban on facial recognition technology, citing mistake made by Detroit police

Jun 26, 2020 at 3:28 pm
click to enlarge Democratic lawmakers introduce ban on facial recognition technology, citing mistake made by Detroit police
Melissa McHenry

Democratic lawmakers on Thursday introduced legislation that would ban facial recognition technology on the federal level and withhold money from state and local police departments that continue to use it.

The bills in the U.S. House and Senate come on the same week that the ACLU filed a complaint against Detroit police for arresting a Black man after the technology incorrectly flagged him as a shoplifting suspect. Supporters of the bill, including U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, cite the arrest as one of the reasons they support a ban.

“This man was handcuffed in front of his family for something he did not do because police depended on this technology,” Tlaib says in a news release. “One person is too many and I have long called for a ban on the use of facial recognition technology. I am proud to join my colleagues today in introducing a moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology.”

Tlaib, who introduced similar legislation that stalled in the House in July, calls facial recognition software “racist technology that is being used in Black and brown neighborhoods to surveil and criminalize.”

Facial-recognition technology has come under fire because experts say it’s unconstitutional, unreliable, and racially biased. Studies have shown that the software misidentifies people of color more often than white people, which Metro Times reported in cover story in July 2019.

The death of George Floyd by Minneapolis cops reignited the debate over the technology as lawmakers and activists express outrage about over-policing in Black communities.

Last week, Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft announced they’re halting the sale of facial recognition technology to law enforcement.

On Wednesday, Boston became the latest city to bar police from using facial recognition technology, joining San Francisco, Oakland, Cambridge, Mass., and Somerville, Mass.

Activists are calling on Detroit City Council to bar the technology as the city debates whether to extend a contract with the software company. The council is expected to debate the technology on Tuesday.

Detroit's facial-recognition software is especially pervasive because it's used on a quickly expanding surveillance network of high-definition cameras under Mayor Mike Duggan's Project Green Light, a crime-fighting initiative that began in 2016 at gas stations and fast-food restaurants. Since then, the city has installed hundreds of surveillance cameras at parks, schools, low-income housing complexes, immigration centers, gas stations, churches, abortion clinics, hotels, health centers, apartments, and addiction treatment centers. The city is also installing high-definition cameras at roughly 500 intersections at a time when other cities are scaling back because of privacy concerns.

“Facial recognition is a uniquely dangerous form of surveillance,” Evan Greer, deputy director of the digital rights group Fight for the Future, says in a news release. “This is not just some Orwellian technology of the future — it’s being used by law enforcement agencies across the country right now, and doing harm to communities right now. Facial recognition is the perfect technology for tyranny. It automates discriminatory policing and exacerbates existing injustices in our deeply racist criminal justice system.”

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D. Mass., said the technology "is fundamentally flawed, systemically biased, and has no place in our society.”

“Black and brown people are already over-surveilled and over-policed, and it’s critical that we prevent government agencies from using this faulty technology to surveil communities of color even further,” Pressley said in a news release. “This bill would boldly affirm the civil liberties of every person in this country and protect their right to live free of unjust and discriminatory surveillance by government and law enforcement.”

Mayor Mike Duggan and Detroit Police Chief James Craig continue to defend facial recognition technology, saying it’s an important tool in fighting crime. Craig said the department is investigating the three officers involved in the arrest of the wrong man.

“It had nothing to do with technology, but certainly had everything to do with poor investigative work,” Chief said Thursday, The Detroit News reports. “But there is a bright light in it, the third investigator assigned to this, he discovered problems. The video wasn’t clear as he felt it should be. He felt more should have been done. He notified the prosecutor's office and they quickly responded.”

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