The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on Tuesday joined the University of Michigan Law School’s Civil Rights Litigation Initiative and the ACLU of Michigan in filing a federal lawsuit on behalf of Robert Williams, who was falsely arrested last year based on faulty facial recognition technology that has been banned in several cities throughout the US.
Williams was arrested last January in front of his home after facial recognition technology falsely identified him as a shoplifter. According to the ACLU, “despite the technology’s well-known flaws, Detroit police relied on it almost exclusively in their investigation.” The police neglected to do any further investigation, through which they would have readily ascertained that Williams was “driving home from work outside of Detroit at the time the incident took place.” The ACLU maintains that there were additional problems with the identification process and arrest.
Facial recognition technology has been criticized by activists for its high rate of inaccuracy, especially in its misrecognition of Black people and women. A federal study released in 2019 confirmed other independent research of the technology, finding that the systems “generally work best on middle-aged white men’s faces.” Following the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, several companies, including IBM, Amazon and Microsoft, announced that they would discontinue the sales of their facial recognition technology to US police.
In its introduction, the complaint states:
This wrongful arrest and imprisonment case exemplifies the grave harm caused by the misuse of, and reliance upon, facial recognition technology. Plaintiff Robert Williams was falsely arrested because, as Detroit police officers later admitted, “the computer got it wrong” and erroneously identified him as the suspect in a watch theft investigation. Nonetheless, officers secured a warrant for Mr. Williams’s arrest without providing the authorizing magistrate with critical information about deficiencies in the investigation and how facial recognition technology was used. As a result, Mr. Williams was arrested without explanation on his front lawn in plain daylight in front of his wife and children, humiliated, and jailed in a dirty, overcrowded cell for approximately 30 hours where he had to sleep on bare concrete—all for no reason other than being someone a computer thought looked like a shoplifter.
Last June, Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts introduced the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act, a bill that would eliminate government use of such technology.