The Power and Peril of Facial Recognition
An incident that saw an innocent man wrongly identified by a facial recognition system, incarcerated and subjected to physical and sexual assault has incensed critics of the technology. His wrongful imprisonment occurred despite supposed safeguards in place to avoid such mistakes. The man in question has now filed a $10 million lawsuit against the city of Detroit and its police officer.
Robert Williams, a 43-year-old resident of Farmington Hill in Metro Detroit, was arrested at his home in front of his wife and two young daughters. As per the lawsuit, he was held behind bars for 30 hours over two days without bail. The lawsuit further mentions that he was violated while he was in custody.
His arrest, in January 2020, took place due to a false match from a surveillance video in Shinola, a high-end local watch and bike store in Detroit. A watch theft had occurred there in October 2019.
Facial Recognition Identifies Williams as the Suspect
The lawsuit reports that the Detroit Police department used an image from the store’s discount surveillance cameras that was of extremely poor quality. This image was compared with the Michigan state driver’s license database via facial recognition software, resulting in Williams being identified as a suspect.
Civil liberties and privacy advocates have called this arrest an example of algorithmic injustice. Further aggravating the issue is the fact that facial recognition technology has been proven to misidentify people of color, particularly black men like Williams, more frequently than white individuals.
Williams has now filed a $10 million lawsuit against the city of Detroit and a specific police officer involved in his wrongful arrest. Named in the lawsuit is Detective Donald Bussa, who showed Williams’ driver's license photo to a retired Shinola security guard and guided him to pick out Williams' photo from a group of six pictures, five of which were ‘filler’ or ‘distractor’ photos.
The security guard, an individual named Moore, selected Williams' photo after some guidance from Bussa. According to the lawsuit Moore would admit that he was influenced by Bussa to select that photo.
Unreliable Witness Account Supports Facial Recognition Results
Out of three other witnesses, a second person identified Williams from a live lineup. This witness, though, was considered unreliable. The two remaining witnesses could not pick Williams, who was never shown a so-called ‘photo array’ or live lineup.
This kind of police lineup, where photographs of potential suspects are shown to a witness, has been criticized for its propensity to yield false positives. Allegedly, witnesses can be easily influenced by the law enforcement officer showing the photographs.
The police used the facial recognition match and a prior conviction of Williams for breaking and entering, to obtain a warrant for his arrest. The lawsuit alleges that the warrant application did not mention the usage of facial recognition search.
Importantly, Williams has been convicted in the past for a juvinile offense as a teen, not for anything related to the watch theft from the Shinola store. His lawyers argue that he was targeted not due to a logical process, but was summarily picked by digital technology.
Williams is Freed from Custody
It's significant that Williams was released not because the software admitted a mistake, but due to the shoplifting complaint being dismissed “in the interest of justice” by the county prosecutor. This decision was influenced heavily by the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) involvement in the case.
The non-profit recently published a detailed report of Williams’ encounter with the law and the subsequent court action. The report starkly highlighted the dangers of reliance on a flawed and racially biased technology.
This lawsuit, worth $10 million comes after Williams and his family were traumatize. The suit is against the City of Detroit, its police officer Donald Bussa and the police department.
Despite his release, the lawsuit will underline the serious consequences of misusing technology, particularly racial bias in facial recognition, and the need for stringent safeguards.
Implications of the Case
Williams’ case has caused a serious uproar about the misuse and unreliability of facial recognition tools. These systems, despite their frequent misidentifications, continue to be used nationwide by various surveillance and law enforcement agencies.
It's effecting not just Robert Williams, but makes millions of people, particularly those of color, potentially wrongful suspects. This incident underscores the urgent need for a thorough review of the facial recognition technology, its application in law enforcement, and the necessary legal and ethical safeguards.
This case is expected to be of substantial significance regarding the presence and future of facial recognition software, particularly its use in police investigations.
The $10 million lawsuit was filed in federal court. Whether it leads to a crackdown on facial recognition misuse remains to be seen. Regardless, it serves a clear reminder of the potential dangers when technology is allowed to override sound human judgement.