ACLU files complaint against Detroit police for false facial recognition arrest

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a complaint against the Detroit Police Department (DPD) regarding the first known wrongful arrest in the U.S. because of facial recognition. 

The ACLU wants the DPD to stop using facial recognition technology after a Black man was wrongfully arrested earlier this year. In January, Robert Williams was arrested after facial recognition software used by Michigan State Police misidentified him as the person who robbed a watch store more than a year ago. 

The ACLU’s complaint reports that police found similarities in the surveillance footage of the robbery and Williams’ driver’s license. After being held at the Detroit Detention Center for 30 hours, Williams’ was released and charges were dropped. The DPD did not immediately respond to our request for comment.

The ACLU said that the use of facial recognition software played a considerable part in Williams’ wrongful arrest.

“Mr. Williams’ and his family’s lives have been significantly upended by DPD’s reliance on flawed and racist technology, and by the incompetence and insensitivity displayed by the DPD at every stage of this matter,” the complaint says. 

DataWorks Plus makes the facial recognition technology used by DPD, and the ACLU says that the system “can’t tell Black people apart.”

Digital Trends also reached out to DataWorks Plus to comment. We will update this story when we hear back. 

Alex Knight/Unsplash

Facial recognition technology is widely reported to misidentify the wrong person and have racial biases. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found facial analysis software is more likely to misidentify people of color, specifically women of color. 

A more recent study by the National Institutes of Science and Technology found that facial recognition technology misidentifies Black and Asian people up to 100 times more often than white people. 

Experts previously told Digital Trends that most facial recognition was trained to identify white male faces, which means that misidentifying anyone who is not white and not a man is much higher.

While the ACLU says that this is the first official known wrongful arrest attributed to facial recognition, the organization said that there are likely many more cases that remain unknown. 

Aside from police departments, facial-recognition software is being used by the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on driver’s licenses given to undocumented immigrants in Maryland without approval. 

What’s troubling is that a piece of 2013 legislation allows Maryland to give special driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, and ICE is reportedly targeting these licenses specifically. ICE is conducting these searches without approval from a court or the state.

Government agencies frequently use databases of drivers’ licenses in conjunction with facial recognition technology to identify citizens. 

“Photos you provide for identification are often shared, without your consent, with law enforcement — the FBI, ICE, and others,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation said. “Those agencies use flawed facial-recognition technology to compare your face with those in mugshots, social media images, and other photos of people suspected of committing crimes, potentially putting you at risk of being misidentified and invading your privacy.”

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