Farmington Hills, Michigan, resident Robert Williams wrote in the Washington Post today (June 24) how he was wrongfully arrested in January because of a false face recognition match and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU) filed a complaint today on his behalf. According to the ACLU’s statement, “this is the first known case of someone being wrongfully arrested in the United States because of this technology, though there are likely many more cases like Robert’s that remain unknown.”

As previously reported on Colorlines, facial recognition technology has not been without controversy over its inability to tell Black people apart, yet still racially profiles them. “Someone had stolen watches, and the store owner provided surveillance footage to the Detroit Police Department,” Williams wrote of his arrest details. “They sent that footage to the Michigan State Police, who then ran it through their facial-recognition system. That system incorrectly spit out a photograph of me pulled from an old driver’s license picture.” 

The trauma of being arrested and handcuffed in front of his wife and two daughters and spending 30 hours in detention angered Williams. He writes:

Federal studies have shown that facial-recognition systems misidentify Asian and Black people up to 100 times more often than White people. Why is law enforcement even allowed to use such technology when it obviously doesn’t work? I get angry when I hear companies, politicians and police talk about how this technology isn’t dangerous or flawed. What’s worse is that, before this happened to me, I actually believed them. I thought, what’s so terrible if they’re not invading our privacy and all they’re doing is using this technology to narrow in on a group of suspects?

The ACLU, which has been following the arrests of innocent people due to poor facial recognition technology, wrote that in addition to Williams, countless others have been harassed and detained by law enforcement and that the practice is inherently racist.

“Every step the police take after an identification—such as plugging Robert’s driver’s license photo into a poorly executed and rigged photo lineup— was informed by the false identification and tainted by the belief that they already have the culprit,” said Victoria Burton-Harris and Phil Mayor, attorneys representing Williams, in an ACLU blog post published today.

“Evidence to the contrary—like the fact that Robert looks markedly unlike the suspect, or that he was leaving work in a town 40 minutes from Detroit at the time of the robbery—is likely to be dismissed, devalued, or simply never sought in the first place…When you add a racist and broken technology to a racist and broken criminal legal system, you get racist and broken outcomes. When you add a perfect technology to a broken and racist legal system, you only automate that system’s flaws and render it a more efficient tool of oppression.”

In the video below Williams and his wife discuss the scary ordeal: