Man wrongfully arrested due to facial recognition software talks about 'humiliating' experience

A Black man in Detroit spent over a day in custody in January after an incorrect facial recognition match led to his wrongful arrest.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer instructs an international traveler to look into a camera as he uses facial recognition technology to screen a traveler entering the United States at Miami International Airport in 2018.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer instructs an international traveler to look into a camera as he uses facial recognition technology to screen a traveler entering the United States at Miami International Airport in 2018.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

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By Ahiza García-Hodges, Chiara Sottile and Jacob Ward

Robert Williams spent more than a day in custody at a Detroit detention center in January after an incorrect facial recognition match led to his wrongful arrest, in what the American Civil Liberties Union alleges is the first such case in the United States.

It's an experience that has stayed with him.

"I felt empty, I guess," Williams told NBC News in a television interview. "Humiliated is the only word that I can think of. I felt humiliated to be getting arrested."

Williams, who is Black, had been mistaken for someone caught on surveillance video shoplifting from a Shinola watch store in Detroit in October 2018. Michigan state police had used facial recognition software from a company called DataWorks, which draws on algorithms from technology companies NEC and Rank One Computing, on the video.

The system incorrectly flagged Williams' driver's license photo as a match, leading to his arrest. The American Civil Liberties Union alleges this is the first known wrongful arrest in the U.S. because of facial recognition technology.

Williams was arrested in front of his wife and their young daughters in the driveway of his home and held in custody for close to 30 hours. He was released after officers told him the computer got it wrong, he said.

He said he didn't know why he had been arrested, and investigators wouldn't tell him the specifics of his alleged crime — nearly $4,000 in shoplifted merchandise — until the next day.

"I'm just locked up and don't know why I'm there," he said. "I was fingerprinted and mugshotted before anybody asked me one question ... It’s a rush to judgment."

The complaint over Williams' experience follows widespread protests over the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, which have spurred nationwide scrutiny of the treatment of Black Americans by the police, as well as surveillance and policing tactics in general.

Williams' arrest, which was first made public Wednesday, also comes as facial recognition technology is under intense scrutiny from technologists, activists and lawmakers as part of the larger movement to rethink policing in the U.S.

Civil liberties and human rights groups, including the ACLU, have long criticized facial recognition software for having inherent racial and gender biases and infringing on constitutional rights. Williams also alleges that his arrest was due to racism.

On Thursday, legislation was introduced in Congress that would ban the use of facial recognition and other biometric surveillance technology by federal law enforcement agencies. The bill also stipulates that state and local law enforcement agencies only receive federal funding if similar bans are enacted.

IBM, Amazon and Microsoft all recently said they were pausing or abandoning their sale of facial recognition technology.

Even though it was a wrongful arrest, Williams said he has yet to receive a personal apology for the incident. He said he gets goosebumps just thinking about how the arrest could have gone. Both he and his wife said they thought of other Black men who have died at the hands of the police while being arrested.

"He’s a large, Black man and as we’ve seen over however many years, those interactions with police often don’t go well," his wife, Melissa, said. "It’s definitely something I've thought about and as it was happening was thinking about. He had every right to be argumentative or combative maybe even with as little information as we were given. He did stay very calm and I’m proud of him for staying very calm, but I don’t think we should have to say that we're lucky that he was in jail for 30 hours."

The couple said they're also concerned about the "adverse effects" Williams' arrest may have on their young daughters.

"After they pulled away with him in the police car, we came in the house and as soon as we came in the door, they looked out the window and I think it hit them that their daddy had just pulled away and they both started sobbing," Melissa said.

Their oldest daughter nearly started hyperventilating and couldn’t do her homework without getting emotional since her dad usually helps her with it. The couple also said they’ll never forget how Williams missed a small but important milestone while in police custody.

"I wasn't there for her first tooth," Williams said. "Even though it was one day, I still missed a milestone in her life."

"When it's used improperly, we know it hurts people. When it's used correctly, we know that it just exacerbates an already racist, unjust criminal legal system."

In a complaint filed with the Detroit police Wednesday, the ACLU requested that police stop using facial recognition. Williams' experience proves that "the technology is flawed and that investigators are not competent in making use of such technology," the organization said.

Both Rank One and guidelines from Michigan state police say face matches should not be, nor are they intended to be, used as the basis for arresting an individual.

"It is not accurate enough," Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said at a press conference Thursday. "Facial recognition is not definitive. It’s not DNA. It will give you three or four images, that’s a lead and from that lead you start to investigate."

Duggan said the incident was a "really bad situation" that was "about subpar detective work and subpar warrant prosecutor work" but said it's inaccurate to say it reflects poorly on the facial recognition software.

"I’m very angry about that case. My apologies to Mr. Williams," Duggan said. "There isn't anything else to say to a man who got arrested who shouldn't have been arrested, there isn't any excuse for it. But, in the early days of DNA testing there were these kinds of issues. In the early days of ballistics testing, there were these kinds of issues. What we need to do is make sure the technology is being used properly."

"When it's used improperly, we know it hurts people," Williams’ lawyer, Victoria Burton-Harris, said. "When it's used correctly, we know that it just exacerbates an already racist, unjust criminal legal system. We do not need this extra layer that complicates these unjust outcomes."

Burton-Harris said this technology should not be used and that Williams' case is a prime example of how unsafe and unreliable it is.

NEC and DataWorks did not respond to requests for comment. But Rank One CEO Brendan Klare said the way his company's technology was reportedly used in Williams' case "goes against established industry standard best practices."

In an email, Klare said, "Rank One unreservedly opposes any misuse of face recognition technology, including where a candidate match serves as the source of probable cause for an arrest."

He added that Rank One will be including a legal way to revoke the use of its software when that use violates its code of ethics and it will be reviewing what other steps it can take to prevent misuse.

On Friday, Detroit Police Chief James Craig also said that the department's new policies would have prevented this from happening. The department currently only uses facial recognition for violent crimes and home invasions, for example.

Chief Craig maintains he is “a strong believer in the software,” adding the incident was the result of "poor investigative work" and had "nothing" to do with the technology.

“Because of that shoddy work, it resulted in him getting arrested, so I will personally apologize for that,” said Chief Craig.

When asked if the department would be disciplining the detectives involved in the faulty investigation, Craig said, “We’re dealing with that issue.”