Black Man Wrongfully Arrested Due to 'Flawed' Face Recognition Tech: ACLU

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a formal complaint against Detroit police for wrongfully arresting a Black man earlier this year after he was allegedly targeted due to "flawed and biased" facial recognition technology.

According to the ACLU, Robert Williams was arrested on his own front lawn in front of his two young daughters and held under police custody for 30 hours after he was wrongfully arrested on January 9.

Police had been looking for a "watch thief," the ACLU said in an account of events shared with Newsweek.

After running images captured through the watch shop's surveillance feed, Williams' driver's license was matched with the footage, along with a number of others.

"There was just one problem: Face recognition technology can't tell Black people apart. That includes Robert Williams, whose only thing in common with the suspect caught by the watch shop's surveillance feed is that they are both large-framed Black men," the ACLU said.

Still, the civil liberties union said, "Detroit police put Robert William's driver's license photo in a lineup with other Black men and showed it to the shop security guard, who hadn't even witnessed the alleged robbery firsthand."

"The shop security guard—based only on review of a blurry surveillance image of the incident—claimed Robert was indeed the guy," leading police to arrest the father outside his home.

Eventually, police acknowledged that their facial recognition software must have wrongly identified him.

In an opinion piece for The Washington Post, Williams wrote of how he "never thought I'd have to explain to my daughters why Daddy got arrested."

"How does one explain to two little girls that a computer got it wrong, but the police listened to it anyway?" he said.

Now, the ACLU of Michigan is lodging a complaint against the Detroit police, demanding they stop using facial recognition technology that "can't tell black people apart."

However, the civil liberties union said: "the damage is done."

"Robert's DNA sample, mugshot, and fingerprints—all of which were taken when he arrived at the detention center—are now on file. His arrest is on the record," the ACLU said.

Further, his wife, Melissa, "was forced to explain to his boss why Robert wouldn't show up to work the next day" and "their daughters can never un-see their father being wrongly arrested and taken away—their first real experience with the police." The couple's children, the ACLU said, have even started playing games involving arresting people and have accused their father of stealing from them in the wake of the incident.

The ACLU's complaint comes just days after IBM, Microsoft and Amazon all announced that they would be pausing or ending sales of their facial recognition technology to law enforcement bodies in the U.S.

The announcement was delivered in the midst of widespread calls for police brutality and racism in law enforcement to be addressed, with growing demand for law enforcement to be defunded entirely in the wake of George Floyd's death.

In recent years, a growing body of research has suggested that algorithms for facial recognition technology can lead to racist profiling and outcomes, with MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini and Microsoft researcher Timnit Gebru finding in 2018 that some facial analysis algorithms misclassified Black women nearly 35 percent of the time, despite correctly identifying white men most of the time.

"Even if this technology does become accurate (at the expense of people like me), I don't want my daughters' faces to be part of some government database," Williams said in his opinion piece. "I don't want cops showing up at their door because they were recorded at a protest the government didn't like. I don't want this technology automating and worsening the racist policies we're protesting."

Newsweek has contacted the Detroit Police Department for comment.

Police officers speak to demonstrators in front of the police station in Detroit, Michigan on May 31, 2020 following a night of protests that saw several arrests and uses of tear gas by the Detroit Police Department on protesters. SETH HERALD/AFP/Getty