Facial Recognition Technology Leads to Wrongful Arrest of Black Man

Facial Recognition Technology Leads to Wrongful Arrest of Black Man


According to Reuters, in the first known case of its kind, a Detroit man was wrongfully arrested after facial recognition technology provided a positive match. Robert Williams spent more than a full day in jail after the photo on his driver’s license was erroneously matched – via facial recognition software – to someone who’d been caught shoplifting on a surveillance video. This is the United States’ first known wrongful arrest based on facial recognition technology, which is becoming an increasingly popular investigatory tool for police departments across the nation.

ACLU Gets Involved

A complaint regarding the Williams case was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU). The organization alleges that Williams, a black man, was wrongfully kept in police custody for 30 hours as a result of the faulty face match. Further, the ACLU shared a video in which Williams explains that he was ultimately released from custody when the arresting officers acknowledged that the software’s match is error. The ACLU cites Williams’s case in their request that Detroit police cease using facial recognition technology altogether. The organization not only contends that the facial recognition technology is flawed, but it also argues that investigators involved in its implementation are also incompetent regarding its usage.

According to government documents obtained by Reuters, the faulty facial match in question came from the digital image analysis section of the Michigan State Police. Michigan police are in the practice of using Rank One Computing’s face matching services, but the company maintains that Williams’s faulty match is an instance of misuse on the part of the police involved.

Rank One Computing Responds

The CEO and co-founder of Rank One Computing, Brendan Klare, responded to the accusation of its software’s misidentification of Robert Williams by suggesting that the police did not properly use their product. Specifically, Klare stated that:

  • The agency’s reported use of facial recognition did not comply with best practices
  • The company completely disavows every inappropriate use of facial recognition technology, and this includes using a facial match as an arrest’s sole source of probable cause.

Further, Rank One reports that it will begin incorporating legal mechanisms to help prevent any use of its software that is in violation of its code of corporate ethics. Finally, Klare shared that the company will be conducting thorough reviews of the facial recognition technology it uses to help ensure that all possible safeguards against misuse are incorporated.

The Details of the Arrest

Both Rank One and the Michigan State Police report that an arrest should never be based solely on a face match. Kym Worthy, the Wayne County prosecutor, shared that the officers involved had no further corroborating evidence to account for Williams’s arrest, which was made in front of his wife and two young daughters. While Worthy apologized for the actions of the officers involved, she acknowledged that the apology did little to mitigate the damage Mr. Williams suffered. The arrest in question involved $3,800 worth of watches that were stolen in October 2018.  

The ACLU Makes Its Case

The ACLU and other civil liberties activists forward the need for increased precautions related to the use of facial recognition in making arrests. The fact is, however, that police have used this technology to obtain convictions for more than a decade. In a 2019 blog post, Rank One commented on concerns related to its software and false matches as misconceptions – based on government research citing the high rate of accuracy maintained by top facial recognition systems.

An ACLU tweet from June 24 summarizes its significant concern regarding the issue:

 BREAKING: We’re filing a complaint against Detroit police for wrongfully arresting Robert Williams, an innocent Black man – all because face recognition technology can’t tell Black people apart. Officers hauled him away in front of his kids and locked him up for 30 hours.

An attorney for the ACLU points out that, regardless of whether or not Rank One ranks well in overall performance in the facial recognition industry, its alleged stellar performance did nothing to help Robert Williams, and the company should accept responsibility for this fact and for the damage that ensued.

Unfair Targeting

In the wake of George Floyd’s tragic death while in the custody of Minneapolis police, the nation is on high alert regarding any practices engaged in by law enforcement officials that unfairly target black Americans and other minorities. In response to unfolding current events, both Microsoft Corp and Amazon.com have – since June – ceased sales of facial recognition software to police departments nationwide.

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