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Criticism mounts over Detroit Police Department’s facial recognition software

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Many have expressed concerns over potential racial bias with the city’s surveillance program, Project Green Light


A program intended to reduce crime in the city has resulted in harsh criticism from the media and residents who worry about potential civil rights abuses.

Project Green Light, a video surveillance program for Detroit businesses, was launched by the city in 2016. Partnering businesses pay to have a high-definition camera, and associated green light, installed outside their building which sends real-time video footage to police monitoring sites.

In March this year during his State of the City address, Mayor Mike Duggan announced the “Neighborhood Real-Time Intelligence Program,” a $9 million, state- and federally-funded initiative that would not only expand Project Green Light by installing surveillance equipment at 500 Detroit intersections—on top of the over 500 already installed at businesses—but also utilize facial recognition software to identify potential criminals.

The latter proposal has drawn the ire of numerous residents, lawyers, civil rights activists, and commentators.

According to a New York Times article about the controversy, the software “matches the faces picked up across the city against 50 million driver’s license photographs and mug shots contained in a Michigan police database.” Numerous studies have shown that facial recognition software misidentifies black faces at a much higher rate than white faces, which could lead to false arrests.

The Detroit Board of Police Commissioners recently approved installation of the cameras, but delayed a vote about use of facial recognition software on traffic cameras. It already uses the technology for cameras outside businesses.

At a public meeting of the board in June, many residents expressed their concern with the program, especially for its potential use in non-criminal cases. From the New York Times article:

Others were more concerned with a provision that would allow the police to go beyond identifying violent crime suspects with facial recognition and allow officers to try to identify anyone for whom a “reasonable suspicion” exists that they could provide information relevant to an active criminal investigation. There was also concern that the photograph of anyone who gets a Michigan state ID or driver’s license is searchable by state and local law enforcement agencies, and the F.B.I., likely without their knowledge.

In a column for The Detroit News, Bankole Thompson wrote about the dangers of the technology, saying that it has a “high propensity to be faulty” and echoing the concerns of residents:

This technology appears to be the equivalent of “Big Brother”—the invasive, frightening and totalitarian character that the British political writer George Orwell wrote about in his book “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” because it stands to be a powerful surveillance tool that could be abused for reasons other than strictly addressing public safety.

The city and Detroit Police Department have said that the technology will not be used invasively or for non-criminal cases. In March, the city told the Detroit Free Press that it would simply analyze “traffic movement” and alert the Department of Public Works when a traffic signal malfunctioned.

That pretense seems to have been dropped. Recently, Detroit Police Chief James Craig defended use of facial recognition technology and said that it would only be used in “extreme circumstances,” like a terrorist threat.

Because there is no federal legislation regulating the technology, cities are on the forefront of its use. San Francisco banned the technology this year, likening it once again to “Big Brother.”

Detroit has invested a lot of resources into Project Green Light and strongly defended facial recognition technology. Will it continue to do so after this backlash?