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ACLU seeks to make facial recognition use by police a civil rights issue with wrongful arrest suit

ACLU seeks to make facial recognition use by police a civil rights issue with wrongful arrest suit

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Michigan, and the University of Michigan Law School’s Civil Rights Litigation Initiative have filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to force policy changes to the use of facial recognition by the Detroit Police Department.

The suit alleges violations of Michigan resident Robert Williams’ Fourth Amendment rights and Michigan civil rights law when he was wrongfully arrested by Detroit Police, which ACLU has consistently blamed on the use of face biometrics.

Williams is Black, and the demographic disparity of face biometric systems is presented by the ACLU as the cause of the failure.

MIT Technology Review notes the common limitation of cameras in representing the skin tone of Black people, which may make the quality of probe images too poor for reliable biometric matching. Poor image quality is known to increase demographic disparities in biometric performance.

Even more problematic for the use of facial recognition is a history of allegedly racist police actions in the United States, according to ACLU members. In Detroit, which is 80 percent Black, using facial recognition values the lives and rights of white people ahead of those if Black people, they say.

The suit reviews the circumstances and chain of police misconduct that led to Williams’ arrest, including several violations of existing Detroit Police policy, and a series of additional abuses and policy violations by law enforcement personnel while he was detained.

In addition to damages, it seeks injunctive relief in the form of a series of transparency measures, in which magistrates would be given details about the facial recognition algorithm used and the nature of face biometrics matches. An injunction against the use of the technology until it no longer “misidentifies individuals at materially different rates depending on race, ethnicity, or skin tone,” and blocking any future search of a database including an image of Williams.

The ACLU suggests in its summary that judges may be more likely to believe that probable cause was established if facial recognition was used, despite its lack of status as forensic evidence.

Two other instances of wrongful arrests have been attributed to facial recognition systems, also affecting Black men, and the individuals falsely matched in both cases have filed lawsuits, though their suits do not seek injunctive bans on the biometric technology.

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