BY EVAN JONES
Capital News Service
LANSING – Lawmakers might restrict how Michigan police can use facial recognition software to fight crime.
A bill in the Senate would ban evidence obtained through facial recognition scanning, a process that runs a person’s photograph through a database of photographs from everyone arrested in Michigan.
The technology inputs one photo of a suspect and provides multiple related photos for law enforcement to determine the best match.
Similarly, House lawmakers are considering a five-year moratorium on the technology’s use. The lawmakers are concerned about potential abuse by law enforcement.
Police oppose both measures, saying that the technology is an important crime-fighting tool.
Yet, proponents of the ban say the technology isn’t accurate enough — especially when scanning minority faces — and will result in convictions of innocent people.
“Our entire criminal justice system is tainted when we are relying on technologies that misidentify black faces at high rates,” said Rep. Isaac Robinson, D-Detroit, who is a sponsor of the ban. “From my understanding it misidentifies everybody.”
He said the subjective component of selecting a match from a group of photos increases the risk of false positives.
A federal report found consistent errors in facial recognition software matching darker-toned faces compared to lighter-toned ones, and especially so when the suspects are women.
“Let’s take a pause,” Robinson said. “We also have to be concerned of the rights of the accused.”
Robinson said he plans to invite Clare Garvie, a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Center on Privacy and Technology, in November to educate his colleagues on the technology’s developments and how it might be controlled.
The Detroit Police Department began funding facial recognition technology for its investigations in 2017. In September, the city’s police board passed new rules that ban live-streamed footage of public spaces, mirroring a proposed compromise in the state legislature.
A substitute bill in the Senate would replicate Detroit’s ban on real-time footage. That would mean officers could use pre-recorded videos and captured photos to identify suspects of a crime, but not from footage taken from street cameras or drones.
“While it’s not great, we can live with that,” said Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.
Widespread use of livestreaming isn’t technically feasible just yet, Stevenson said.
“Some people are concerned that we’ll be taking pictures of people and be able to track people where they’re at in various times of the day,” Stevenson said. “That technology is not here for that. Livestreaming really doesn’t work.”
Blaine Koops, the executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, agrees.
He said officers only view video for investigations after footage was captured for another purpose.
But many police departments are beginning to integrate technology without anyone noticing, said Kimberly Buddin, the policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.
“Michigan is becoming kind of a police state where law enforcement has the ability to record the everyday movements of people,” she said.
Buddin said she supports the ban on real-time footage in the spirit of compromise. She also calls for a ban on “safe zones” like schools and hospitals, where individuals receive some type of public assistance or benefits.
“This is a good first step, but we’re hoping to continue to work with the Legislature moving forward,” she said.
Buddin said there haven’t been any documented cases of abuse in Michigan, but in other states, officers have recorded protests to identify and compare people in the crowd without a warrant, something she said violates the First Amendment.
Another concern is the use of driver’s license photos to identify individuals targeted by federal immigration enforcement.
Law enforcement officials argue the technology makes the criminal justice process more efficient and say they are concerned about how a prohibition would harm investigations.
Without the technology, officers would match photographs with mugbooks, Stevenson said. Facial recognition technologies just computerizes the process.
“It helps reduce labor,” Stevenson said. “We still have 3,000 less police officers [in Michigan] than we did during 9/11.”
Agencies in Northern Michigan feel the bulk of the problems with a small workforce as they struggle with finding both candidates for the job, and the funding to pay for them, he said.
“One of their biggest issues is staffing and filling openings that they can,” Stevenson said. “It’s really nice that it saves money over here, but it’s even better if bad guys get locked up and are off the street.”
The technology is particularly helpful when police have a suspect, Koops said.
He said it also helps locate missing persons, and the more data points available makes determinations more accurate.
But the shift to a ban on livestreaming could be the first step in placing limits that ease resident concerns.
“I’d have to talk to my residents about it,” Robinson said. “Sometimes you take an incremental approach and take a win where you can get it if it helps protect rights.”
Koops said the FBI is establishing national standards governing the use of facial recognition and improving the program’s algorithm to enhance accuracy, but while progress is being made, the issue of facial recognition isn’t going away soon.
“With this type of technology – or any technology – about the time that you think you’ve got some standards set, the technology changes and you have to start all over again,” Koops said.