New legislation would ban facial recognition on federal level, withhold funds from cities like Detroit that use it

Jun 15, 2021 at 3:05 pm
click to enlarge Detroit's Real Time Crime Center, where police use facial recognition technology. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
Detroit's Real Time Crime Center, where police use facial recognition technology.

Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday reintroduced 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 Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act was introduced in the U.S. House and Senate.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who has repeatedly denounced the technology as unreliable and racially biased, co-sponsored the House measure.

“We cannot allow racist, faulty facial recognition technology to continue to be used in the surveillance and criminalization of Black and Brown communities,” Tlaib said in a statement. “In my district, two Black men, Michael Oliver and Robert Williams, were both wrongfully arrested after being misidentified by this broken technology that has subjected them to trauma no one should have to experience. This is why I have long called for a ban on the use of facial recognition technology and am proud to join my colleagues in the reintroduction of this legislation that will save countless people from racist experiences with our so-called justice system.”

The legislation comes a month after Williams, a 43-year-old Black man, filed a federal lawsuit against Detroit police for arresting him after the technology incorrectly flagged him as a shoplifting suspect.

The bill would prohibit facial recognition technology on the federal level and withhold grant funding for state and local entities that use the technology.

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.

Experts say the technology is 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 a cover story in July 2019.

"Facial recognition is like nuclear or biological weapons. It poses such a threat to the future of human society that any potential benefits are outweighed by the inevitable harms," Caitlin Seeley George, director of campaigns and operations for Fight for the Future, a nonprofit working to ban facial recognition, said in a statement. "The number of cases where the technology has been used to identify people doing wrong are far outnumbered by the daily examples of this technology being used to automate discriminatory policing and exacerbate existing injustices in our deeply racist criminal justice system. This inherently oppressive technology cannot be reformed or regulated. It should be abolished."

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