DETROIT, Mich. – A coalition of grassroots organizations is pushing to end the use of facial recognition technology in the city.

BYP100, Green Light Black Futures, We the People Michigan and Detroit Community Technology Project have banded together to fight what they call “hyper-surveillance and facial recognition technology.” A post on BYP100’s Facebook page proclaims, “We aim to dismantle Project Green Light and Facial recognition software used by police.”

On Sept. 19, the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners (BOPC) approved a new policy that put some limits on the use of facial recognition. Under the rule, police can’t use facial recognition technology on video – live or recorded. They can only use it on still photos. But this does not preclude cops from using the technology on photos pulled from videos. Police are also prohibited from using it to assess a person’s immigration status.

According to a Facebook post by Green Light Black Futures, the BOPC voted abruptly for the use of facial recognition technology in policing toward the beginning of the meeting without hearing public comments. The vote was 8-3 in favor of the proposal.

BOPC Chairwoman Lisa Carter said she believes the prohibitions contained in the revised directive address many of the concerns raised by the public.

“The revised directive is not a complete ban on the use of facial recognition. The revised directive gives clear direction and lines of authority to the department as to when and how such technology can and cannot be used.”

Despite the new limits, activists said they would continue to push for a ban on facial recognition.

“We know that decisions like these will continue to hurt poor Black people and we also know we must continue to learn, grow and build with our communities,” the Green Light Black Futures post said.

A post by BYP100 said, “The fight is not over! We have house bills circling that would put a ban on facial recognition technology. This isn’t over until WE (the people) say it is. Period!”

Detroit has developed an extensive surveillance system known as Project Green Light utilizing a network of thousands of government and private cameras throughout the city. The cameras are installed at schools, parks, apartment buildings, immigration centers, gas stations, churches, hotels, fast-food restaurants, and even in places such as addiction treatment centers and abortion clinics.

The program was implemented in 2016 and was generally popular due to the promise that it would deter and help solve crime. As the New York Times pointed out, the system is anything but covert. A flashing green light marks the location of every camera linked into a network that feeds directly into the Detroit Police Department’s downtown headquarters.

Like virtually every government program, the surveillance network has expanded over time. Now, the revelation that police are using facial recognition with the camera system has sparked controversy. The City of Detroit spent more than $1 million on facial recognition technology back in 2017.

According to the NYT, the program matches images captured by the cameras against driver’s license photos and police mug shots held in a statewide police database. The DPD purchased its facial recognition system and put it into operation without approval from the elected Board of Police Commissioners that is supposed to provide oversight and accountability for the department. According to the Metro Times, the commission has evolved into “a virtual rubber stamp for Chief James Craig and Mayor Mike Duggan, who appoints some of the members and helped campaign for the commission chairman, Willie Bell.”

Duggan tried to assert that the police department was not and would not be using the technology via a misleading tweet.

Beyond the broader privacy implications, the use of facial recognition technology is problematic due to its proven lack of accuracy in identifying people with dark skin pigmentation. “We live in a major black city. That’s a problem,” a software engineer told the Times.

The coalition is planning a meeting on Sunday 9/29 2-5 p.m. It is being promoted as a “community conversation around mass surveillance and redefining community safety.”

This activism is part of a broader growing resistance against facial recognition in cities and states.

San Francisco and Somerville, Mass. have both banned facial recognition technology. The New York Assembly is considering a bill to ban facial recognition in schools. And a bill introduced in the Michigan legislature would place a total ban on police use of facial recognition.

Mike Maharrey

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