The Detroit City Council has passed a new law that will give the public more say about the police use of facial recognition. The Community Input Over Government Surveillance Ordinance was backed by Council President Pro Tempore Mary Sheffield, and states that government agencies that want to implement a new surveillance technology must perform outreach and hold a public hearing before signing the contract. City departments that do get permission to move forward must then file an annual report about their surveillance activities.
The law technically applies to any surveillance technology, though video surveillance applications are drawing the lion’s share of the attention. The police use of facial recognition has been particularly contentious in Detroit, where the police arrested a Black man named Robert Williams based on nothing more than a false facial recognition match. Williams and the ACLU filed a formal complaint against the Detroit Police Department (DPD) in June, noting that biased facial recognition systems help perpetuate existing racial inequalities.
Despite those concerns, the City of Detroit would later sign a $200,000 contract with DataWorks Plus that allows the DPD to continue using facial recognition until 2022. The City signed its initial $1 million facial recognition contract in 2017, though the police did not have any formal punishments for officers that abuse the tech until a policy update in 2019. That update also got rid of a provision that permitted real-time face scans in select situations.
For its part, City Council is hoping that the law will create more transparency, and make the police accountable to the general public. In addition to raising concerns about facial recognition, Detroit residents and privacy advocates have pushed back against the city’s Project Green Light program, which outfits businesses with high-definition video cameras that send a live feed directly to the DPD’s Real Time Crime Center.
“With surveillance technology permeating throughout all facets of our daily lives, it was important to strike a balance between the added safety it can provide with giving people a voice and injecting transparency into the procurement and use processes,” said Sheffield.
Civil rights activists have repeatedly warned that many facial recognition systems are less accurate for people with darker skin, and therefore help perpetuate existing racial inequalities. The DataWorks Plus software has also appeared in a separate facial recognition program in Los Angeles, though the LAPD has come under fire for trying to cover up its use of the technology.
Source: The Detroit News
May 31, 2021 – by Eric Weiss