There is no prohibition on face surveillance in Detroit

Allison McDonald
Jul 29, 2019 · 4 min read
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Across the country, cities are grappling with how to respond to the increasing use of surveillance tools by law enforcement. Decisions about how to regulate or prohibit tools like face recognition cannot be made by the community subject to surveillance without frank transparency by law enforcement. In Detroit, this transparency is proving hard to come by, as most recently evidenced by Mayor Michael E. Duggan’s comments on the matter.

In 2016, the Detroit Police Department (DPD) launched a new program called Project Green Light, which aimed to reduce crime at late-night businesses. The program has participating locations install high-def security cameras and broadband internet on their premises and stream their security footage directly to DPD’s Real-Time Crime Center, where police watch for crime as it happens. As of today, there are 573 active locations participating across Detroit, giving DPD wide video coverage of the city.

In 2017, DPD entered into a $1 million contract with DataWorks Plus for a face recognition system that, in addition to performing face searches across mugshot and other databases, can monitor more than 100 concurrent video feeds.

After the Center detailed DPD’s face recognition system in our report America Under Watch, there has been a scramble to figure out what, exactly, Detroit is doing with their face recognition system, and why the community living in a city with a growing number of surveillance cameras has been left out of the discussion about how police will use them.

In response to the calls for transparency, Mayor Michael E. Duggan released a statement to clear up confusion and correct “misleading reports.” Unfortunately, Mayor Duggan’s statement itself contained a few incorrect and misleading claims.

  • “I strongly oppose the use of facial recognition technology for surveillance.” While perhaps not intentionally misleading, Mayor Duggan’s declaration may lead many people to think he’s opposing all face recognition — when he’s not. A major barrier to transparency is inconsistent terminology when talking about face recognition systems. Mayor Duggan’s statement hides a lot with the words “for surveillance.” Although he never explains what that means, we can reasonably interpret from his other statements that “surveillance” is the use of live stream video. As has been aptly described in the Detroit Free Press, this word game attempts to assuage fears without addressing many of the problems with face recognition technology. The threat of surveillance is still present with non-live video and still images taken from surveillance footage, as are face recognition’s frightening inaccuracies. But what’s more — face surveillance is not actually prohibited in Detroit.
  • “DPD is not permitted to use facial recognition software for surveillance and I will never support them doing so.” On paper and to the best of our knowledge, this is false. DPD’s Standard Operating Procedure (which, as a note, didn’t go into effect until 18 months after the face recognition system was purchased) says that “DPD may connect the face recognition system to any interface that performs live video, including cameras, drone footage, and body-worn cameras. The face recognition system may be configured to conduct face recognition analysis of live or recorded video.” As the SOP was last modified as recently as April 2019, there doesn’t seem to have been any plan to remove this language even after the system has been up and running for over 2 years.
  • “The Green Light cameras do not have any facial recognition technology — they are standard security cameras.” This is a frequent, disingenuous response to the reasonable concern that Green Light footage is used in DPD’s face recognition system. But rather than addressing the underlying fear, it clarifies an irrelevant technical detail. You could think of it like defending an unwanted blood test by arguing that the syringe that takes your blood sample can’t do the lab tests. Your blood sample will be taken to a lab that can do the tests, just like your face will instantaneously be sent from a Green Light camera to a computer that is capable of face recognition.
  • “If you have committed a dangerous crime and the police have a picture of you, only then can police detectives use facial recognition software on that picture to try to determine your identity.” In fact, according to the SOP, you don’t need to have committed a crime at all for DPD to be allowed to search for your face in their databases. The list of authorized uses of face recognition includes “corroborat[ing] tips and leads” as well as identifying “potential witnesses and/or victims of violent crime.” This means that you don’t need to be a criminal to have your face searched — even being near a crime could be enough to get your photo run through the system.

Duggan does deserve credit for speaking publicly about this topic and acknowledging that face recognition systems have significant problems with bias and have no proven success in other contexts like capturing drivers’ faces from traffic cameras. But we cannot depend on law enforcement and politicians to protect our privacy with vague and misleading promises. Until meaningful restrictions are formally put in place to prevent the expansion of Detroit’s face recognition system and to regulate how the current system is used, Detroit residents don’t have many real assurances that they aren’t being surveilled today, and that they won’t be surveilled tomorrow.

Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law

Center on Privacy & Technology, Georgetown Law.

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