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Man Says He Was Falsely Arrested After Facial Recognition Mistake


Law enforcement's use of facial recognition technology has come under scrutiny in recent months. Now, a man who says he was falsely arrested after a computer algorithm misidentified his face is speaking out. As NPR's Bobby Allyn reports, critics of the technology say the case shows how unreliable the tool is.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Police in Detroit were trying to figure out who stole five watches from a Shinola watch store, and so they pulled security video that had recorded the incident. They zoomed in on the grainy footage and ran the suspect through a facial recognition system. A hit came back - 42-year-old Robert Williams of Michigan.

ROBERT WILLIAMS: When I look at the picture of the guy, I just see a big Black guy. I don't see a resemblance. I don't think he looks like me at all.

ALLYN: In January, police in Detroit arrested Williams for the watch theft. Williams says he was placed in an interrogation room, and police put three photos in front of him.

WILLIAMS: And he says, so I guess that's not you, either. So I picked it up and held it to my face. And I told him, I said, I hope you don't think all Black people look alike.

ALLYN: Williams was detained and then released on bail until his hearing. That's when prosecutors dropped the charges against him. Academic and government studies have demonstrated that facial recognition systems misidentify people of color more often than white people. What makes this case extraordinary is that police admitted that facial recognition technology prompted the arrest. Typically, the tool is used in secret. Lawyer Phil Mayor is with the ACLU of Michigan.

PHIL MAYOR: They never even asked him any questions before arresting him. They never asked him if he had an alibi. They never asked him where he was that day.

ALLYN: The ACLU has filed a complaint against the Detroit Police Department. The complaint asks that police stop using the tool in investigations. In a statement to NPR, the Detroit Police Department says after the Williams case, the department enacted new rules. Now only still photos, not security footage, can be used for facial recognition and only in the case of violent crimes. According to Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy and Technology, at least a quarter of the country's law enforcement agencies have access to face recognition tools. Jameson Spivack is a researcher at the center.

JAMESON SPIVACK: Most of the time people who are arrested using face recognition are not told that face recognition was used to arrest them.

ALLYN: The government use of facial recognition technology has been banned in half a dozen cities. In Michigan, Williams says he hopes the case is a wake-up call to lawmakers. Williams says there should be a nationwide ban.

WILLIAMS: Let's say that this case wasn't retail. What if it was rape or murder? Would I had got out of jail on a personal bond? Or would I'd ever come home?

ALLYN: Williams and his wife, Melissa, worry about the long-term effects the arrest will have on his daughters. He was arrested on his front lawn. His young daughters cried as their father was taken away in a police car.

MELISSA WILLIAMS: Seeing their dad get arrested, that was their first interaction with the police. So it's definitely going to shape how they perceive law enforcement.

ALLYN: In his complaint, Williams and his lawyers say, if the police department won't ban the technology outright, then at least his photos should be removed from the database, so this doesn't happen again. Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bobby Allyn
Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.
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