Home / Technology / AI Weekly: Detroit’s facial recognition battle is about the ends justifying the means

AI Weekly: Detroit’s facial recognition battle is about the ends justifying the means

This week, after U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) criticized on Twitter the Detroit Police Department’s use of facial recognition software, they invited her to visit its Real Time Crime Center so she could see the technology in action. Rep. Tlaib readily agreed to a visit (how could she not), and so presumably we’ll get to enjoy Act II of some choice political theater if and when she actually makes such a visit.

Rep. Tlaib’s remarks followed presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (D-VT) proclamation this week that he would ban all use of facial recognition technology in policing as part of his criminal justice reform plan. Tlaib had already planted a flag for herself opposing some facial recognition with the bill she co-sponsored with Representatives Yvette Clarke (D-NY) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA). Called the “No Biometric Barriers 5 to Housing Act of 2019,” it prohibits “the use of biometric recognition technology in certain federally assisted dwelling units, and for other purposes.”

Thus, her public callout of the Detroit PD is in a way an announcement that she’s taking on a new front in the battle. But the brief, three-tweet exchange spoke to larger issues around the use of facial recognition technology within police work. The Detroit PD’s response to Rep. Tlaib’s gauntlet toss — basically, come and see how we’re using this software responsibly before you cast aspersions — was telling. It showed that fundamentally, the Detroit PD’s position is that when it comes to facial recognition, the ends justify the means.

If there was any doubt about that, after Rep. Tlaib moved on from the Twitter thread, the Detroit PD Twitter chirped a quote from Detroit’s police chief: “Abolishing the use of Facial Recognition protects only one group of individuals – VIOLENT CRIMINALS, said Police Chief James Craig.” (Capitalization theirs.)

Then, Chief Craig started talking to local TV reporters about how effective his department’s high-tech policing efforts are. Three clips made it onto the department’s Twitter feed. Craig looks to be in full defense mode, standing in the Real Time Crime Center, home of the police department’s Project Greenlight, which incorporates real-time video from all over the city. He says what’s missing from the discussions are the victims of crimes. He expounds in detail about how responsible the department has been, how they’ve taken great care to ensure that Project Greenlight and their facial recognition efforts are constitutional, how they’ve shown the Center to all sorts of different community groups representing many demographics, how they’ve taken into consideration all the well-documented problems with misidentification, and how they don’t actually perform the facial recognition in real time (it’s applied after video capture only if necessary, he said).

He insisted that all of this real-time video is not surveillance, a note the mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan, sounded as well in an earlier post. Mayor Duggan said that the facial recognition capability is a separate thing altogether from Project Greenlight, which was developed to help keep an eye on traffic intersections without identifying faces. (A Georgetown study draws a different conclusion.)

You can see it from the perspective of Chief Craig and the Detroit PD. They don’t live in a theoretical world of ethical maybes; they work every day in real and gritty environments, trying to cut down on crime in a city that has a stained nationwide reputation. Creating a fully operational policing tool in the form of the Real Time Crime Center, and adding the capability to use facial recognition software when applicable, must have taken monumental effort and political skill.

And all of this is being threatened. Ironically, it doesn’t take any special technology to read this exasperated weariness on Craig’s face as he talks to reporters. In his mind, he’s done everything the right way. He’s not hiding anything.

But Craig has missed the point. Rep. Tlaib knows plenty about facial recognition technology, and what she knows is enough for her to call for its ban.

Hers is not the only voice decrying facial recognition in policing and elsewhere. There’s an increasing appetite nationwide for more regulation around the technology, and it’s also already verboten in San Francisco; Somerville, Massachusetts; and Oakland, California. Many academics and researchers are loudly unequivocal about their objections to its existence. There’s even been bipartisan support in Congress for legislation around the technology.

The ethical and practical problems involved in facial recognition technology have been exhaustively discussed, debated, and explored, including in this publication. The practical problems, such as how people with darker skin are identified with significantly less accuracy than people with lighter skin, are appalling and dangerous and serve to reinforce existing biases and inequality in policing.

Tlaib vs. Detroit PD is a hometown beef that’s a microcosm of a much larger international debate about facial recognition. It’s true that improved technology can abate some of those practical problems, but the larger ethical issues persist, whether that’s police abusing the technology to make arrests, control borders, target specific groups of people, or other problems.

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