After controversy over whether police should be able to use facial recognition technology, the Board of Police Commissioners in Detroit approved its use but imposed certain limits.
Debates surrounding the use of this technology are steeped in both claims of privacy violations and racism. While Detroit police celebrated the move, civil liberties advocates called it a form of high-tech racism that could be used to profile people of color.
The problem with facial recognition technology is evidence suggesting the software is likely to misidentify people with darker skin. This flaw could especially pose a problem in Detroit, which is nearly 80% Black. Other cities with large populations of people of color — such as Oakland and San Francisco, California — have already voted to prohibit the technology, NBC reports.
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The debate over privacy comes from the possible use of the technology via police bodycams and surveillance videos. Many argue if the software is hooked up to police bodycams, an officer patrolling an event such as a rally or protest, or even just walking down the street could use it to identify people.
Reggie Crawford, a former police officer and former member of the oversight board addressed the board after the vote, according to NBC.
“You voted yes on some high-tech racism that’s being used by the Detroit Police Department in this city,” Crawford said. “This technology is flawed.”
This technology works by comparing people’s photos to images in a database to identify them. Though the Detroit police celebrated the technology aiding their searches, it may not, in reality be very effective.
In Britain, the Guardian reports, six police forces trialed facial recognition over the course of a few years. It was wrong 81% of the time.
A 2018 American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) study found that Amazon’s facial recognition software, “Rekognition,” mistakenly matched 28 congressmembers’ faces to suspects’ mugshots.
However, this type of technology has led to some success in the U.S.
Walter Yovany-Gomez, a member of the MS-13 street gang was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List for years before he was captured in 2017. A tipster and facial recognition technology helped the authorities find him.
The Board of Police Commissioners is a civilian body that oversees the Detroit police. They placed restrictions on the use of the software, including a process for getting approval to use the technology.
DataWorks Plus is the facial recognition software the department will be using. FACEWatch plus, a DataWorks Plus feature, boasts the ability to recognize faces in live recordings and video surveillance. However, these new guidelines limit the Detroit police department’s use of the technology to still images. According to the guidelines, it also cannot be used for surveillance and can only be applied in an active or ongoing Part 1 Violent crime investigation, which includes robbery, sexual assault or homicide, or a home invasion investigation. The document also prevents the use of the technology to assess a person’s citizenship status.
It additionally claims it honors the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, saying the department may not use the technology based solely on a person’s religious; political or social views or activities; their participation in a noncriminal organization or event; or their races, ethnicities, citizenship, places of origin, ages, disabilities, genders, gender identities, sexual orientations, or other classifications.
A previous version of the proposed policy had fewer restrictions. Lisa Carter, the chairwoman of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners told the Detroit Free Press that the stricter guidelines are meant to address the community’s concerns regarding the technology’s problems identifying people of color and women.
“I believe the prohibitions contained in the revised directive address many of the concerns raised by the public,” Carter said. “The revised directive is not a complete ban on the use of facial recognition. The revised directive gives clear direction and lines of authority to the department as to when and how such technology can and cannot be used.”
Among the policy’s critics — with or without the restrictions — is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan and Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Michigan. The ACLU submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the city of Detroit to review the department’s use of the technology since 2017.
The ACLU released a statement condemning the decision.
“The Board of Police Commissioners violated jeopardized the right to privacy of everyone who lives and works in this city by approving the Detroit Police Department’s use of facial recognition technology,” Rodd Monts, Campaign Outreach Coordinator of the ACLU Michigan said in the press release. “This undermines Detroiters’ relationships and trust with their law enforcement, and will likely disparately impact people of color as research shows.”