Can you imagine getting arrested and spending time in jail for a crime you never committed?
Well, that is exactly what happened to a Detroit man named Robert Williams after facial recognition technology misidentified him in a criminal case.
With the meteoric rise of Artificial Intelligence, which is defined as “the simulation of human intelligence processes by machines, especially computer systems,” according to Tech Target, it’s no surprise that it’s becoming increasingly common to use facial recognition technology when it comes to solving crimes, right?
Well, in 2018, a Shinola store’s security cameras captured a person stealing watches, Newsweek reported. Then, a couple years later on Jan. 9, 2020, a Black man named Robert Williams was arrested in front of his wife and two young daughters for the crime — but he had nothing to do with it. Even worse, he wasn’t informed of the reason for his wrongful arrest, leading him to spend 30 hours behind bars.
“The day I was arrested, I had no idea it was facial recognition,” Williams told Newsweek. “I was arrested for no reason.”
Following Williams’ wrongful arrest, James E. White, chief of the Detroit Police Department, issued a statement that in part read: “There are a number of checks and balances in place to ensure ethical use of facial recognition, including: use on live or recorded video is prohibited; supervisor oversight; and weekly and annual reporting to the Board of Police Commissioners on the use of the software.”
Despite the police department’s statement, Alex Najibi at Harvard University shared that advocates worry facial recognition programs are not always fair, especially when it come to Black people: “In 18th century New York, ‘lantern laws’ required enslaved people to carry lanterns after dark to be publicly visible,” Najibi wrote. “Advocates fear that even if face recognition algorithms are made equitable, the technologies could be applied with the same spirit, disproportionately harming the Black community in line with existing racist patterns of law enforcement.”
This case recently became a hot topic again as it was used as an example of face recognition mishaps happening across the country. In March, lawmakers introduced the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act to stop government officials from using AI technology to solve crimes.
In June 2020, the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union took on the case and called for police to stop using AI technology to solve criminal cases.
“We know that facial recognition technology threatens everyone’s privacy by turning everybody into a suspect,” Phil Mayor, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan, said in a press release. “We’ve repeatedly urged the Detroit Police Department to abandon its use of this dangerous technology, but it insists on using it anyhow. Justice requires that DPD and its officers be held accountable.”
Williams was released ahead of his trial, which was scheduled two weeks later, though it isn’t clear exactly when it occurred. During the court hearing, the judge dismissed his case without prejudice, meaning the case could be opened again in the future.
The father of two is now suing the Detroit Police Department in an attempt to seek justice for the traumatizing and embarrassing experience he endured.