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The Chief of Detroit Police James Craig speaks with the press about the protests taking place in Detroit, Michigan, June 3,2020
Photo: Seth Herald (Getty Images)

During a public meeting on Monday, Detroit Police Chief James Craig estimated the facial recognition technology used by his department fails to identify suspects accurately “96% of the time,” adding that nearly every case would go unsolved if police relied solely on the technology to identify suspects.

Motherboard first reported the chief’s remarks:

“If we would use the software only [to identify subjects], we would not solve the case 95-97 percent of the time,” Craig said. “That’s if we relied totally on the software, which would be against our current policy … If we were just to use the technology by itself, to identify someone, I would say 96 percent of the time it would misidentify.”

Craig’s remarks come only days after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint with the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners seeking a public apology over the arrest of Robert Williams, a Black Michigander who was arrested in January after reportedly being falsely identified by DPD’s facial recognition system.

According to the complaint, DPD’s system erroneously identified Williams as a shoplifter who’d stolen watches in a Detroit store a year and a half earlier. Williams was arrested in his front yard in front of his wife and kids, held overnight at a city jail, and interrogated the next day. That’s when the case against Williams began to fall apart. “The investigating officer looked confused, told Mr. Williams that the computer said it was him but then acknowledged that ‘the computer must have gotten it wrong,’” the complaint says. Nevertheless, the charges were not immediately dismissed.

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Williams said his two young daughters were confused by the experience and when he arrived home were playing games, pretending to be police officers arresting people, and accused him of stealing things. “He had to explain to his employer and family what had happened. And he had to live with the stigma of being arrested on his front lawn, in front of his family, and where any number of neighbors could have been watching as well,” the complaint says.

The ACLU has accused the DPD of attempting to cover up the mistake by refusing to released public records related to the incident, despite a court order.

“Federal studies have shown that facial-recognition systems misidentify Asian and Black people up to 100 times more often than white people. Why is law enforcement even allowed to use such technology when it obviously doesn’t work?” Williams wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post last week. “What’s worse is that, before this happened to me, I actually believed them. I thought, what’s so terrible if they’re not invading our privacy and all they’re doing is using this technology to narrow in on a group of suspects?”

The ACLU said in a statement that Police Chief James Craig’s comments about his Detroit’s facial recognition system nearly always misidentifying suspects is nothing less than an admission the technology doesn’t work. “Face recognition surveillance is dangerous when wrong, and dangerous when right. One false match can lead to unnecessary police encounters like interrogation, arrest, or worse. Even if accurate, the technology can be used by law enforcement to identify us at protests or more,” the ACLU said.

DataWorks Plus, the company that provides Detriot’s face recognition system, told Motherboard that it doesn’t keep statistics on the software’s accuracy, and does not, in Motherboard’s words, “specifically instruct law enforcement how to use the software.”

Last week, Boston’s city council voted unanimously to ban the use of facial recognition technology. Boston Police Commissioner William Gross had previously called the technology unreliable. The move followed similar bans in nearby cities, including Cambridge, Somerville, and Brookline. San Francisco and Oakland also rolled out bans in California this year.

Democratic members of Congress introduced the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act last week aimed at banning the technology on the federal level while additionally withholding grants from state and local police departments that continue to use it. Sen. Ed Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who introduced the legislation, said at the time that facial recognition doesn’t just pose a threat to privacy, “it physically endangers Black Americans and other minority populations.”

“I’ve spent years pushing back against the proliferation of facial recognition surveillance systems because the implications for our civil liberties are chilling and the disproportionate burden on communities of color is unacceptable,” Markey added. “In this moment, the only responsible thing to do is to prohibit government and law enforcement from using these surveillance mechanisms.”

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