Detroiters discuss facial recognition use, privacy fears

George Hunter
The Detroit News
State Rep. Isaac Robinson, left, listens while Tawana Petty of Detroit Community Technology Project speaks at a town hall meeting discussing the use of facial recognition software by law enforcement.

Detroit — Privacy concerns prompted by Detroit police use of facial recognition software were aired out during a "liberty town hall meeting" Monday at a west-side church.

The meeting at King Solomon Baptist Church, attended by about 20 people, was organized by state Rep. Isaac Robinson, D-Detroit, who earlier this month introduced House Bill 4810, which would prevent police in Michigan from using facial recognition technology for five years.

"I want this technology to be severely limited," Robinson said. "I want to be able to walk down the street without Big Brother looking at me. This technology violates our civil liberties. This legislation makes a stand for our civil rights."

Detroit police say they have employed facial recognition technology for more than a year, using standing operating procedures that bar officers from randomly scanning people's faces. Instead, the software is used only after-the-fact to identify someone captured on video committing a violent crime, Detroit police chief James Craig said.

Clare Garvie, senior associate of the Georgetown University Center on Privacy & Technology co-authored the report "America Under Watch: Facial Surveillance in the United States," which warned: "Detroit's million-dollar system affords police the ability to scan live video from cameras located at businesses, health clinics, schools, and apartment buildings."

Clare Garvie, senior associate from Georgetown's Center on Privacy & Technology (with microphone) speaks at a town hall meeting discussing the use of facial recognition software by law enforcement in Detroit at Historic King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit on July 29, 2019.

Detroit's system has real-time capabilities, but under the standard operating procedures and the proposed policy, it would only be used if there was a credible threat of a terrorist attack, and the chief or his designee would have to approve using that feature, Craig said.

When informed that Detroit's proposed policy would restrict police from scanning faces in real time, Garvie, who spoke at Monday's meeting, said: "Restricting using live footage limits the risks, but there are still other risks. This technology misidentifies people."

One of the criticisms of facial recognition technology is that it produces false hits on people with darker skin. Imad Hamad, president of the American Human Rights Council, said that's his main concern about Detroit using the technology.

"Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey are two of the most known people in the United States, and they were mistaken by this," Hamad said. "If you have darker skin, you’re subject to being mistakenly identified by this technology. We must guard against that."

Craig said police officials have taken that concern into account, adding there are checks and balances built into the procedures to curb misidentification.

After a suspect's photo is fed into the software, a technician in the Real Time Crime Center decides whether it's a match. Then, a second technician must concur before the information is sent to detectives, he said.

"Even then, the detective isn't allowed to only use the (facial recognition technology) as the only piece of evidence," Craig said. "There has to be other evidence before we can make an arrest."

The chief said the department has used facial recognition software about 500 times. "In only about 150 cases were the photos forwarded to the detectives," he said.

Resident Tawana Petty said it's important for people to air their concerns about government overreach. "We're here today for the civil rights of all human beings here in Detroit and across the country ... we need to stop this facial recognition technology."

Under the City Charter, the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners must approve a permanent policy governing use of the technology. The board was set to vote on the issue at its June 27 meeting, but the issue was tabled until the next meeting on July 11. A few days before that meeting, Craig said he wanted to make adjustments to the policy, so the vote was removed from the board agenda.

Police commissioner Willie Burton was arrested at the July 11 board meeting after he expressed concern about use of the technology, along with asking new board chairwoman Lisa Carter if she would chair the board differently than during her term in 2017-18.

David Dudenhoefer, chair of the 13th Congressional District Republican Party, said during Monday's meeting that opposition to Detroit's use of facial recognition software is bipartisan.

"I’m not concerned with the promises they're making with Detroit police and the police commission right now," he said. "I'm sure their intentions are good. I'm concerned about 20 years from now.

"This is very Orwellian," Dudenhoefer said. "I never thought that would come to pass, but here we are. I don't want to get too conspiratorial, but if we don't stop this now, in 20 years it's going to be hard to stop."

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN