Letter: SF Public Defender’s Racial Justice Committee Supports Davis’ Proposed Ban on Facial Recognition

By Tim Kingston

Dear City of Davis Police Commission,

I am extremely heartened to see that the City of Davis is considering protecting our constitutional right to privacy by opposing the adoption of Facial Recognition Technology (FRT), an Orwellian tool that has proved to be unfair and racially biased down to its very foundations. I am particularly pleased to see you doing this while the City of San Francisco is hell bent on doing exactly the wrong thing by trying to gut its own ban on Facial Recognition.

FRT needs to be flat out banned.

As you are probably all aware  FRT is fundamentally biased against people of color. This is due to its failure to use demographically accurate training sets, resulting in a classic garbage-in garbage-out technology. This is a foundational problem with the technology. But even if FRT managed to use accurate training sets, another deep problem arises.

Where would such accurate training sets come from, DMV records? How many citizens want their DMV photos subject to police search and seizure of their personal appearance. Or would they be scraped from the internet? This also has extreme problems. Then, if either kind of image is used, a false positive could mean the police showing up on someone’s doorstep and arresting someone who was not even in the same city as where the alleged crime occurred!

This is precisely what has happened several times already, primarily to African American men. (See training data issue above.) While there have been a number of publicized cases like this, we have no idea of how many unpublicized false identifications and arrests have occurred.

Next comes the unfortunate issue of police, shall we say, investigation mistakes. In place where FRT is used, police are only supposed to use FRT  as an investigation lead that is not a probable cause for arrest. Sadly some officers have ignored such policies and made arrests solely on the basis of the FRT lead. When caught, one officer was quoted saying “Oh well I guess the computer was wrong” or words to that effect. (https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/04/14/1022676/robert-williams-facial-recognition-lawsuit-aclu-detroit-police/)

Even if all these problems were solved, which is highly unlikely, communities of color would still be unfairly targeted due to systemic, structural issues of race in this county. We have seen this be true with virtually every new law enforcement technology. It gets used most against people of color.

City of Davis, you are doing the right thing by proposing a ban on Facial Recognition Technology. Thank you from the bottom of my tiny, cold, hard heart!

Tim Kingston is Senior Investigator/member of the SF Public Defender Racial Justice Committee for the SF Public Defender’s Office.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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