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Detroit activists host forum about dangers of facial recognition technology


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A broad coalition of civil rights groups will gather in Detroit on Thursday evening to discuss the risks of the technology during a panel discussion that is open to the public.

The activists are calling on the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners to ban the technology, which has been used without oversight or public input.

Commissioners have been working on a policy governing the use of the technology and plan to provide an outline of proposed new rules at their weekly meeting at 3 p.m. Thursday at Public Safety Headquarters. The meeting is open to the public.

Police Commissioner Willie Burton, an opponent of the technology, also will be speaking during the panel discussion, which begins at 6 p.m. at Red Door Digital at 7500 Oakland Ave.

Community activist Tom Choske says the public was blindsided by the technology and have a right to voice their opinions before the police commission makes any decisions.

“We want to make sure that the voices of the people who are most affected by this system are heard,” Choske tells Metro Times.

Citing research that shows the face-scanning software is racially biased and prone to errors, the coalition of local groups co-wrote a five-page letter warning commissioners about the consequences of a technology that other cities are banning.

"Allowing discriminatory facial recognition technology to operate in a majority Black city will exacerbate all the racial bias already pervading police practices in Detroit," the letter reads. "A city like ours should be taking the lead in resisting the use of racially biased surveillance technology — not serving as one of its leading proponents."

Police have been using the $1 million facial recognition system for nearly two years without public input. The department’s use of the technology became widely known after an alarming study by Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy & Technology in July warned that the city had one of the most pervasive systems in the nation.

The technology enables police to identify residents captured on hundreds of private and public high-definition cameras installed at parks, schools, immigration centers, gas stations, churches, abortion clinics, hotels, apartments, fast-food restaurants, and addiction treatment centers. Police can identify people using databases containing hundreds of thousands of photos, including mugshots, driver's licenses, and images scraped from social media.
But opponents say face-scanning systems are inaccurate and can lead to false arrests, citing research. They also argue the technology violates people's privacy rights.

In July, state Rep. Isaac Robinson, D-Detroit, introduced a bill to impose a five-year moratorium on the controversial technology.

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