facial-recognition

Man Wrongfully Arrested By Facial Recognition Tells Congress His Story

Robert Williams was arrested last year in Detroit after a facial recognition system misidentified him as a suspect.
July 13, 2021, 7:58pm
A screenshot of Robert Williams testifying during a Congressional hearing on facial recognition technology.

Michigan resident Robert Williams testified about being wrongfully arrested by Detroit Police in an effort to urge Congress to pass legislation against the use of facial recognition technology. 

Williams' testimony was part of a hearing held by the House of Representatives' subcommittee on crime, terrorism, and homeland security, which dealth with how law enforcement uses the highly controversial surveillance technology. Congress recently introduced the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium, which would indefinitely ban its use by law enforcement.

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Williams was wrongfully arrested in 2020 for federal larceny after he was misidentified by the Detroit Police Department’s facial recognition software after they used a grainy image from the surveillance footage. He was then picked from a photo lineup by the store security guard who wasn’t actually present for the incident. According to his testimony, Williams was detained for thirty hours and was not given any food or water. 

“I don’t even live in Detroit and Detroit Police came to my house in Farmington Hills and basically carted me off,” he said in his testimony. “I don’t think it’s fair that my picture was used in some type of lineup and I’ve never been in trouble.”

Motherboard previously reported that the Detroit Police's facial recognition system also led to the false arrest of another man, Michael Oliver. Oliver is now suing the city, along with the ACLU.

Research has repeatedly shown that facial recognition technology is fundamentally biased against women and people of color, leading to errors like this. Even when working properly, privacy advocates have argued facial recognition systems disproportionately target communities of color, creating further pretext for police intervention.

“Large scale adoption of this technology would inject further inequity into a system at a time when we should be moving to make the criminal justice system more equitable,” Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) said during the hearing. 

The subcommittee also referenced a recent study from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that reported that 20 federal agencies used facial recognition software last year. Six federal agencies, including the FBI and the U.S. Postal Service, reported using it during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests that followed the police murder of George Floyd. 

Robert Williams is just one of many people impacted by this technology’s errors and biases. Detroit police misidentified another Black man, Michael Oliver, using the same software just the year before. 

Williams is now represented by the ACLU and is suing the Detroit Police Department for damages and policy changes to prohibit the use of facial recognition technology. So far, the technology has been banned statewide in Vermont and Virginia, as well as in 20 cities across the US.

“Mr. Williams deserved better from the law enforcement agencies entrusted to use a technology that we all know is less accurate when applied to citizens who look like him,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said in his testimony.