Facial recognition: African American man mistakenly arrested for blurred photo

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Robert Williams spent 30 hours in detention because the software linked the photo of his driver's license to the image of a watch thief.

This is the first such error documented in the United States. An African American has been wrongfully arrested for police use of facial recognition technology, according to a complaint filed Wednesday in Detroit, a major industrial city in the north.

In early January, Robert Williams was detained for 30 hours because the software had deemed the photo of his driver's license and the image of a watch thief captured by surveillance cameras identical, according to this complaint.

He had been arrested and handcuffed outside his home, in the presence of his wife and two daughters, ages 2 and 5. "How can I explain to two girls that a computer was wrong? He wrote in a column published by the Washington Post.

No federal legal framework

According to his account, after a night in a cell, officers asked him if he had ever been to a Detroit jewelry store and showed him two fuzzy photos of a black man.

"I took the paper and put it close to my face saying, I hope you don't think all black men are the same. The police looked at each other and one of them said: the computer must have been wrong," he said.

Facial recognition technology, used for several years by various police services in the United States without a federal legal framework, is accused of being unreliable in identifying minorities, especially Black or Asian. However, until now no specific case of error has been documented.

Companies have suspended the sale of this software

Since the death of George Floyd, a 40-year-old African American suffocated by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 28, Americans have demanded, during protests across the country, police reforms and militants in particular advocate abandoning this technology.

Several companies, eager to respond to this mobilization, such as Amazon, IBM or Microsoft, have suspended the sale of this identification software to the police, until clear rules have been established. Cities like San Francisco and Springfield have also given up on this technology.

The powerful civil rights association Aclu filed an administrative complaint on behalf of Robert Williams on Wednesday in front of the Detroit City Hall to have his criminal record removed from any reference to this incident and to demand that facial recognition be abandoned by police from the city.

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