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Defending Black Lives means banning facial recognition

Racial uprisings Justice sweeps the country. After the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others, by name and nameless, America has finally reached its moment of reckoning. And the politicians are starting to react. But you cannot end police violence without ending police surveillance. It starts with the ban on facial recognition, a technology that is perfectly designed to automate racism.



Tawana Petty is director of the Data Justice program at the Detroit Community Technology Project and co-leader of Our Data Bodies project. She is also a drafting member of the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, a moderator for combating racism at the Detroit Equity Action Lab and a fellow of the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford PACS.

I live in Detroit, a city with more than 500,000 blacks. In my city we live under constant surveillance. We are in a constant lineup. Our faces are captured in front of the camera everywhere ̵

1; harvested and analyzed using algorithms. Numerous studies have shown that facial recognition algorithms have systemic racist and gender-specific prejudices. Detroit chief of police openly admitted that their software is wrong in 96 percent of cases. To be honest, the facial recognition software thinks that all blacks look the same.

Nevertheless, the Detroit Police Department’s Real Time Crime Center has been using facial recognition since 2017. Combined with Project Green Light, a program in which the city works with private companies to install surveillance cameras and 24/7 access to footage, facial recognition enables a dystopian surveillance state. What is happening in my city should be a wake-up call for the nation.

Those of us who live in Detroit have known the human impact of surveillance for years. A four-year study I conducted, called Our Data Bodies, showed that residents couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched, even before the real-time crime monitoring program went live. The reality of this brutal surveillance regime increased concern and attracted Detroit attention when the country learned about the story of Robert Williams, a black man detained by the Detroit police before his wife and children and detained for more than 30 hours . Facial recognition incorrectly accused him of a crime after matching his photo with an image from surveillance material. The experience was humiliating for Williams, but it could have been much worse. Had he resisted the unjust arrest, which would have been reasonable under the circumstances, he might not have lived to tell his story.

We see the videos of the people injured and killed by the police – but the surveillance that led to this brutality is often hidden from us. Surveillance is the basis of modern policing. It has ties to a long racist legacy, from the branding of enslaved people to the lantern laws of the 18th century. Police and politicians defend these programs by claiming they are designed to ensure people’s safety. But surveillance is no security for black people.

Covid-19 has shed light on how surveillance technologies like Project Green Light can be armed against residents. The surveillance system was used to issue tickets to community members for non-compliance with shelter-in-place instructions. Persons found to be in violation can be fined up to $ 1,000 or held in prison for six months. (The Detroit City Council has issued two memos asking the DPD for details, including certain amounts of dollars, but no response yet.)

During the pandemic, almost half of the Detroit people lost their jobs. Detectors also die more frequently from the virus, which highlights the high levels of poverty, lack of access to adequate health care, unemployment, underemployment and unaffordable water in the city.

Instead of providing resources to under-served neighborhoods, Detroit has spent millions of dollars monitoring its residents, ignoring the fact that these invasive programs have little or no crime impact. In fact, the murders and shootings have remained high since the Green Light project started. City officials in Detroit and across the country should invest in communities to avoid quality of life issues that lead to crime and to ensure that our neighborhoods have the things we need. It has been shown that simply increasing the level of lighting in public spaces increases security at a significantly lower cost, without racist prejudice and without endangering the freedom of the residents. Black communities that have been underserved and ignored for decades want to be seen and not observed.

Not every city has a program like Detroit, but video surveillance is increasing across the country. Amazon has partnered with more than 1,300 police agencies to help them access an enormous amount of footage collected by private home owners and businesses. (Although the company has imposed a moratorium on the use of its face detection technology by the police, it is difficult to see it as anything other than an advertising stunt.) Face detection is the tool that the police can use to equip these surveillance cameras with weapons.

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