Detroit's controversial facial recognition technology faces day of reckoning

Sep 17, 2019 at 10:39 am
click to enlarge DPD Chief James Craig inside the city's surveillance room at police headquarters. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
DPD Chief James Craig inside the city's surveillance room at police headquarters.

The fate of Detroit’s controversial facial recognition technology could be determined this week.

The Detroit Board of Police Commissioners is expected to vote on a new policy governing the use of facial recognition software. Some commissioners, however, have said they plan to oppose the technology.

With no public input, the Detroit Police Department has been using the technology for nearly two years. The department faced a backlash following an alarming study by Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology in May. Researchers said Detroit’s extensive surveillance network and its $1 million facial recognition software “risks fundamentally changing the nature of our public spaces.”

Under public pressure, the police commission began debating a strict policy to limit the city’s uses of the technology. One proposal would prevent police from using the software in real-time. Another would restrict the software for suspects accused of committing felonies.

The police commission said it may release the proposed new policy Tuesday afternoon.

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 more than 500 surveillance cameras at parks, schools, low-income housing complexes, immigration centers, gas stations, churches, abortion clinics, hotels, health centers, apartments, and addiction treatment centers. Now, the city is installing high-definition cameras at roughly 500 intersections at a time when other cities are scaling back because of privacy concerns.

Opponents say the technology should be banned because it’s inaccurate, could lead to false arrests, and violates people’s constitutional rights to privacy. A broad coalition of civil rights groups is urging the police commission to ban the technology because it’s “flawed and dangerous” and “can give rise to unnecessary civil rights violations.”

Congress and Michigan lawmakers are considering placing a moratorium on the technology to give researchers and legal experts more time to study its use.

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