Detroit grappling with debate over facial recognition software

Detroit grappling with debate over facial recognition software

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Detroit's use of facial recognition technology has raised concerns among residents and puts business owners in a difficult spot, but police say it could help fight crime in the city.

Background: Detroit's "Project Green Light" started with a crime-fighting partnership between eight gas stations and the police department. The stations installed surveillance cameras, allowing police headquarters to follow the video every minute of every day, in an attempt to crack down on crime.

Nasser Beydoun, who owns a Marathon gas station on the west side of Detroit, was one of the first people to pay $6,000 for the installation. He told NBC News that the system has helped his business. "We don’t have the trouble that we used to have. There’s an element that used to come to the station to cause problems that no longer shows up.”

Now that 578 businesses have real-time camera connections with police headquarters, criticism of the facial recognition software is ramping, casting doubt on the police department's conduct and causing owners to doubt their initial decision.

Concerns: Critics are worried that Detroit is very close to becoming a "surveillance state." Thanks to the 24/7 footage, the police can identify suspects, but activists told a local Fox station officials can also gather personal information about ordinary citizens. In addition, many are concerned about the facial recognition software's ability to rightly identify people of color.

“What happens when this software misidentifies one single person that doesn’t have the resources for a good legal defense? Detroit is the poorest, blackest city in America. It should be the last city where we start implementing facial recognition," said Willie Burton, a member of Detroit’s Board of Police Commissioners.

Civil groups including the ACLU have called for a ban on facial recognition technology. Sen. Bernie Sanders joined them recently, citing bias, along with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), who clashed with the Detroit's police department on Twitter over their use of the tech.

The debate has become so contentious that Burton was arrested at one meeting about facial recognition for disorderly conduct. The charge was later dropped.

The police are pushing back against some of the claims. Detroit police Chief James Craig says that the facial recognition software isn't their last stop. The police have analysts that identify the suspect before an arrest is made, he says.

“It would be tragic" if the city bans the use of a facial recognition tool, says Craig. "This is about safety. This is about the victims. This is about identifying violent suspects. This is not about Big Brother and taking that man who just left that store and we got facial recognition running and say, ‘Oh, that’s Mr. Jones who was arrested six years ago.’ We don’t do that. That’s absolutely wrong.”

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