Robert Julian-Borchak Williams went to jail for 30 hours after Detroit police arrested him in front of his wife and children. Nijeer Parks was jailed in New Jersey for 10 days and spent more than $5,000 in legal fees to defend himself. Michael Oliver lost his job and car while being held in a Detroit jail for three days on a felony larceny charge.
These three Black men were wrongfully arrested because facial recognition software matched them to crimes they did not commit.
Their experiences make clear that — whatever other concerns we might have about facial recognition technology — it poses a serious threat to our privacy and particularly to that of marginalized populations and communities.
Facial recognition is rife with racial and gender biases. Multiple studies have found the technology is up to 100 times more likely to misidentify Black or Asian faces compared with white faces. Black women, in particular, are misidentified at significantly higher rates — nearly 38% compared to that of white men at 0.8%. This technology is even less reliable when identifying transgender individuals and entirely inaccurate when used on nonbinary people.
Even if facial recognition technology operated accurately across race and gender, it would continue to be used disproportionately to surveil marginalized communities, further entrenching systemic racism, exacerbating inequities and resulting in life-or-death encounters with law enforcement. One false match could lead to a wrongful arrest, imprisonment and even deadly police violence.
Government agencies should not be allowed to deploy racist, anti-Black facial recognition technology in communities that are already over-surveilled and over-policed.
King County now has the opportunity to advance racial justice and equity and protect everyone’s privacy and civil liberties by adopting a ban on government use of this harmful technology. That is why Councilmembers Kohl-Welles, Rod Dembowski and Dave Upthegrove have introduced a new ordinance (2021-0091) prohibiting the acquisition and use of facial recognition technology by any King County administrative office or executive department, including the King County Sheriff’s Office. Keep in mind, this will only apply to King County government, not the private sector.
With council passage of this new ordinance, we will create the first countywide facial recognition ban in the nation, joining a growing number of cities, including Portland, Boston, San Francisco and Jackson, Mississippi, among others, that have already taken this important step toward limiting racially biased government surveillance and protecting people’s privacy.
In the United States, surveillance tools — however rudimentary or advanced — have long been used to target, control and police marginalized communities. During the 18th century, “lantern laws” required that Black, mixed race and Indigenous people carry a lit candle at night — the surveillance technology of the time. As Simone Browne explains in her book, “Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness,” lantern laws deputized white people, granting them the power to stop and question anyone suspected of breaking the law. Echoes of the 18th century law reverberate in contemporary stop-and-frisk policing. Today, marginalized communities continue to be over-policed with the help of far more advanced and invasive surveillance technologies like facial recognition.
Thousands of law enforcement agencies, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the FBI and Seattle Police Department, have used or currently use this racially biased surveillance technology. Government entities such as the Port of Seattle have worked with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to implement facial recognition at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — just one example of the federal government’s role in the proliferation of this technology at all levels. Private retailers such as Rite Aid have also installed facial recognition across the country, largely in lower-income and nonwhite neighborhoods. (Rite Aid last year said it had discontinued its use of facial recognition, according to an investigation by Reuters.) Use of facial recognition fuels police power and increases the possibility of monitoring of marginalized communities, when these communities already are unduly subjected to disproportionate surveillance and criminalization.
Proponents of facial recognition will argue it also is needed to track down missing children. We take this concern seriously and have included language in the ordinance to ensure that it does not prohibit compliance with the National Child Search Assistance Act.
The hard truth is that security and tech companies around the world stand to profit greatly from the development of this product. That’s why some oppose this ordinance. But we believe that privacy, social justice and civil liberties are more important than a global corporation’s bottom line.
The potential dangers inherent in government use of this technology are immense and far outweigh any potential benefit. Facial recognition technology must be banned, not only because it fuels discriminatory surveillance, but also because it jeopardizes everyone’s privacy and civil liberties. With this technology, government agencies can track individuals’ movements and contacts without their knowledge or consent, chilling free speech and free association, undermining press freedom and threatening the free exercise of religion. People cannot meaningfully consent to be face surveilled, and the use of this technology harms our collective privacy and democracy.
Wrongful arrests such as those of Williams, Parks and Oliver should not be repeated anywhere. Now is the time to adopt a ban on facial recognition technology in Martin Luther King Jr. County.