The use of facial recognition surveillance technology has been shown to be inaccurate, racially biased, and a threat to personal privacy. Michigan has the sad distinction of being a leader in the use of facial recognition surveillance technology, which has been shown to be inaccurate, racially biased, and an unprecedented threat to personal privacy. In 2016 the Detroit Police Department purchased facial recognition software and used it for years without approval from the Board of Police Commissioners.

In August 2019 the ACLU of Michigan and a coalition of civil rights organizations sent a letter urging the Detroit Police Department to end the use of this dangerous recognition technology, but they refused to do so. A miscarriage of justice of the kind we had warned about then came to light. In January 2020, Detroit police officers arrested Robert Williams on his front lawn, in front of his wife and two young daughters, on charges that he had stolen watches from a Shinola store in Detroit. The arrest was based almost entirely on a facial recognition scan from security footage at the Shinola store, but it was dead wrong: Mr. Williams was not the man in the security footage and was nowhere near the store at the time of the theft.

In June 2020 the ACLU of Michigan filed a formal complaint with the Detroit Police Department asking the police to apologize to Mr. Williams and his family for what happened, and repeating our plea for the department to stop using facial recognition technology. The story, broke by The New York Times, attracted nationwide media attention and city officials publicly apologized, but the Detroit Police Department continues to use facial recognition for law enforcement purposes.

In April 2021 the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit against the Detroit Police Department, alleging that the officers involved violated Mr. Williams’ rights under the Fourth Amendment and the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act by arresting him on the basis of this flawed technology.

(Williams v. City of Detroit; ACLU of Michigan Attorneys Phil Mayor and Dan Korobkin; National ACLU Attorney Nathan Freed Wessler; co-counsel Michael J. Steinberg of U-M Law School, with student attorneys Eilidh Jenness, Ben Mordechai-Strongin, Jeremy Shur, and Deborah Won.) 

See further case background