Revelations that the Detroit Police Department has implemented a facial recognition system with no public input or approval has sparked controversy in the Motor City. The mayor and other city officials have tried to cover up the extent of the program.

The debate in Detroit provides a look into the broader implications of the growing use of facial recognition across the United States and the ever-expanding surveillance state.

Politicians can be pretty clever when it comes to the way they use words. They can say one thing and mean the exact opposite. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan did just that as the debate over facial recognition technology heated up. The mayor implied that the Detroit Police Department isn’t using facial recognition technology. But if you parse his words carefully, you’ll find that’s not what he said at all.

The city spent more than $1 million on facial recognition technology back in 2017. But Duggan sent out what the Detroit Free Press called “a definitive sounding tweet” that seemed to assert that the police department was not and would not be using the technology.

“Let me be clear: there will be no facial recognition software used with live stream video by the (Detroit Police Department). That’s not what we’re doing, and that’s not ever what was intended.”

As the Detroit Free Press interpreted the tweet and a subsequent video, the mayor was attempting to “shut down any notion that the department was using facial recognition software, a technology which has been widely criticized for issues ranging from privacy overreach to high-error rates, specifically when used on black and brown individuals.”

Duggan was clearly trying to muddy the water and hoping to deflect criticism from a wildly controversial surveillance program. After all, why would a city spend $1 million on technology it wasn’t going to use?

It wouldn’t.

And it is using the technology.

So, was Duggan lying?

That remains unclear, but if you carefully read what he said, you will realize they he never claimed the police department wasn’t using facial recognition at all. He just said it wasn’t using it on “live stream video.”

In other words, police aren’t running facial recognition in real-time. But they are using the technology on still images plucked from reams of footage collected by cameras all around the city. As Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center senior policy analyst Daniel Lawrence told the Detriot Free Press, this is a difference without any real distinction.

“In all my experience with facial recognition, the way the process and programming works is that it takes a still image from the video. I’m not knowledgeable of any facial recognition software that’s taking real video. It’s taking a still from a video.”

Detroit has developed an extensive surveillance system known as Project Green Light utilizing a network of thousands of government and private cameras throughout the city. The cameras are installed at schools, parks, apartment buildings, immigration centers, gas stations, churches, hotels, fast-food restaurants, and even in places such as addiction treatment centers and abortion clinics.

The program was implemented in 2016 and was generally popular due to the promise that it would deter and help solve crime. As the New York Times pointed out, the system is anything but covert. A flashing green light marks the location of every camera linked into a network that feeds directly into the Detroit Police Department’s downtown headquarters.

Like virtually every government program, the surveillance network has expanded over time. Now, the revelation that police are using facial recognition with the camera system has sparked controversy. According to the NYT, the program matches images captured by the cameras against driver’s license photos and police mug shots held in a statewide police database. The DPD purchased its facial recognition system and put it into operation without approval from the elected Board of Police Commissioners that is supposed to provide oversight and accountability for the department. According to the Metro Times, the commission has evolved into “a virtual rubber stamp for Chief James Craig and Mayor Mike Duggan, who appoints some of the members and helped campaign for the commission chairman, Willie Bell.”

Beyond the broader privacy implications, the use of facial recognition technology is problematic due to its proven lack of accuracy in identifying people with dark skin pigmentation. “We live in a major black city. That’s a problem,” a software engineer told the Times.

As the New York Times noted, “There was also concern that the photograph of anyone who gets a Michigan state ID or driver’s license is searchable by state and local law enforcement agencies, and the F.B.I., likely without their knowledge.”

This is almost certainly happening. A recent report by the Washington Post revealed that the federal government has turned state drivers’ license photos into a giant facial recognition database, putting virtually every driver in America in a perpetual electronic police lineup. In fact, Detroit is just a microcosm of the broader facial recognition surveillance system evolving across the U.S.

Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are partnering to create a massive, nationwide facial recognition system. The FBI rolled out a nationwide facial-recognition program in the fall of 2014, with the goal of building a giant biometric database with pictures provided by the states and corporate friends.

The Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law released “The Perpetual Lineup,” a massive report on law enforcement use of facial recognition technology in the U.S. You can read the complete report at The organization conducted a year-long investigation and collected more than 15,000 pages of documents through more than 100 public records requests. The report paints a disturbing picture of intense cooperation between the federal government, and state and local law enforcement to develop a massive facial recognition database.

“Face recognition is a powerful technology that requires strict oversight. But those controls, by and large, don’t exist today,” report co-author Clare Garvie said. “With only a few exceptions, there are no laws governing police use of the technology, no standards ensuring its accuracy, and no systems checking for bias. It’s a wild west.”

George Orwell’s Big Brother would have drooled over the all-encompassing surveillance system quietly under construction in the United States. Facial recognition technology linked to federal, state and local databases can track your every move just by pointing a camera at your face. It effectively turns each of us into a suspect standing in a perpetual lineup.

In all likelihood, the federal government heavily involves itself in helping state and local agencies obtain this technology. The feds provide grant money to local law enforcement agencies for a vast array of surveillance gear, including ALPRs, stingray devices and drones. The federal government essentially encourages and funds a giant nationwide surveillance net and then taps into the information via fusion centers and the Information Sharing Environment (ISE).

Fusion centers were sold as a tool to combat terrorism, but that is not how they are being used. The ACLU pointed to a bipartisan congressional report to demonstrate the true nature of government fusion centers: “They haven’t contributed anything meaningful to counterterrorism efforts. Instead, they have largely served as police surveillance and information sharing nodes for law enforcement efforts targeting the frequent subjects of police attention: Black and brown people, immigrants, dissidents, and the poor.”

Fusion centers operate within the broader ISE. According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators…have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant. Known ISE partners include the Office of Director of National Intelligence which oversees 17 federal agencies and organizations, including the NSA. ISE utilizes these partnerships to collect and share data on the millions of unwitting people they track.

In other words, facial recognition surveillance in cities like Detroit has national implications. And similar scenarios are playing out in cities across the country.

The state of Michigan could shut down Detroit’s invasive spy program. A bill introduced in the Michigan legislature would place a total ban on police use of facial recognition.

Mike Maharrey

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