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In January of 2022, Harvey Murphy was arrested and thrown in jail while trying to get his driver’s license renewed at a local DMV. According to a $10 million lawsuit Murphy has since filed, a “loss prevention” agent working for a Sunglass Hut retail store used facial recognition software to accuse Murphy of perpetrating an armed robbery at a store in Houston, Texas. In reality, Murphy was more than 2,000 miles away at the time of the robbery.
According to a lawsuit 61-year-old Murphy has filed against Macy’s and Sunglass Hut, “he was arrested and put into an overcrowded maximum-security jail with violent criminals. While in jail trying to prove his innocence, he was beaten, gang-raped, and left with permanent and awful life-long injuries. Hours after being beaten and gang-raped, the charges against him were dropped and he was released.”“All of this because a company told the police, based on artificial intelligence, that you were the one who committed terrible crimes,” the lawsuit said.The armed robbery happened on January 22, 2022 in Houston, Texas. Two armed men went into a Sunglass Hut, threatened two employees with guns, and made off with cash and sunglasses. EssilorLuxottica is the parent company that owns Sunglass Hut, and like many large retail corporations they often employ individuals called “loss prevention” agents that assist with criminal investigations. According to the lawsuit, a EssilorLuxottica loss prevention agent named Anthony Pfleger reached out to the cops after the robbery and claimed he knew who had committed the crime.“Pfleger told HPD they could stop their investigation because he found their guy,” the lawsuit states. “He stated that he worked in conjunction with Macy’s loss prevention to determine that the person who violently robbed the Sunglass Hut was Harvey Eugene Murphy Jr. (“Murphy”). Using artificial intelligence and facial recognition software, EssilorLuxottica and Macy’s took the video from the robbery and determined that Murphy was the robber.”
A Houston Macy’s had also been robbed, and Pfleger worked with its loss prevention agents to ID the culprits. Cameras in retail stores are so ubiquitous in America that we often don’t think about them anymore. These camera systems watch people while they shop and, occasionally, provide evidence to law enforcement of crimes. Many of them produce poor quality images and videos that make it hard to identify people.Over the past ten years, retail stores began to hook up these cameras to facial recognition software systems. The idea is a computer could automatically identify known criminals when they enter a retail location and alert law enforcement or loss prevention agents to track the person’s movements.But facial recognition technology is infamously unreliable. All-too-human biases are embedded in the systems, and they often do a terrible job of IDing people. There have been many cases of false arrests based on bad facial recognition technology, often involving Black people.None of this stopped EssilorLuxottica from pushing Houston police to arrest Murphy. According to the lawsuit, Pfleger prepared one of the employees at the Sunglass Hut to positively identify Murphy in a photo lineup after he’d called the cops.
Murphy was an easy target for Sunglass Hut. He has a criminal past and was in the system. Now, he’s a grandfather who, according to the lawsuit, has turned his life around. According to the lawsuit, old mugshots from the 1980s were publicly available and part of the facial recognition databases scanned by EssilorLuxottica’s systems.At the time of the robbery, Murphy was in Sacramento, California. He didn’t find out about the robbery, or that he’d been blamed for it, until he went to the DMV to renew his driver’s license. He was arrested and held without bond. Despite sending his court appointed lawyer the evidence that exonerated him, he still spent hours in jail.“A few hours before Murphy was to be released from jail, he was followed into the bathroom by three violent criminals,” the lawsuit said. “He was beaten, forced on the ground, and brutally gang raped. After this violent attack, one of the criminals held a shank against his neck and told him that if he reported the rape to anyone, he would be murdered. Murphy crawled to his bunk and faced the wall praying these men would not attack him again.”He was released later, but the damage was done. “All of this happened to Murphy because the Defendants relied on facial recognition technology that is known to be error prone and faulty,” the lawsuit said.Os Keyes, an Ada Lovelace Fellow and PhD Candidate at the University of Washington, called the case “tragic and entirely unsurprising.”“This is precisely the kind of situation we've been warning about for years; that these systems, whatever their theoretical reliability, are in practice so finicky, and so consequential, that they cannot be fixed,” Keyes told Motherboard. “The only thing I'd push back on is Murphy's lawyer's claim that it could happen to anyone; these systems are attractive precisely because they promise to automate and speed up ‘business as usual,’ which includes laundering existing police biases against people who are already in the system, minority groups, and anyone else who doesn't fit. This outcome is as inevitable as it is horrifying, and should be taken as a sign to restrict and reconfigure policing in general as well as FRT in particular.”Reached by email for comment, Macy’s told Motherboard that it did not comment on pending litigation. EssilorLuxottica did not respond.