The Detroit police department introduced a system of high-definition surveillance cameras called Project Green Light. The cameras have expanded to 578 places across the city and would stream the live video footage from gas stations, liquor stores, and additional all-night businesses to a central police center.
Now that the Project Green Light cameras have expanded to 578 locations across the city, residents of Detroit are fighting with the news. The fact that police have authority to zero in on anyone who is filmed is outrageous. Not to mention they will collect personal information about everyone, even customers who are merely pumping gas.
Officials say the use of facial recognition technology is to merely identify suspects in violent crimes and not intended to spy on regular citizens. However, the city’s population consists of Middle Easterns, African Americans, Asians, and Latin American immigrants. The odds of it misidentifying people are high. The technology has been proven to be more likely to misidentify people with dark skin.
The dispute over facial recognition in Detroit has increased the hostility so much affecting even Willie Burton, a member of the Detroit’s Police Commissioners board. Burton was taken out in handcuffs, arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after the board’s chairwoman accused Burton of disrupting the meeting. (The charge was later dropped) The board, along with Michigan’s state Legislature and the Detroit City Council, are all contemplating proposals to limit or even ban the police use of facial recognition.
This dispute has centered Detroit in an escalating national discussion concerning high-tech crime-fighting accessories. The devices have been advertised as beneficial to society but actually, lead to more intrusive forms of government surveillance. How is it that Facial recognition is a tool that was uncontroversial two years ago but now so contentious that cities, like San Francisco, have preemptively banned its use by police. Senator Bernie Sanders has even called for a national ban.
In Detroit, the police have been using the technology for more than two years. That, as well with the city’s high crime rate, its demographics and the widespread network of Project Green Light surveillance, has made the argument here very combative and closely followed amongst the country. Police Chief of Detriot, James Craig, is concerned over the “hysteria” over devices he believes are securing one of the nation’s most dangerous cities.
“I’m against anything that creates a surveillance state,” states Nasser Beydoun, a local business owner. Detroit last year recorded its lowest number of homicides in over 50 years. From Craig’s viewpoint, the police need every tool possible to make the city safer. He says the technology he’s put into position in recent years, including Project Green Light, is a crucial factor in his strategy to better the city.
The project’s cameras are widely recognized by flashing green lights that transmit round-the-clock video from local stores, schools, restaurants, and community centers.
Project Green Light emerged from a 2014 action that put flashing green lights in several city gas stations. Originally Called Project Lighthouse, it was meant to turn gas stations into a safe environment where people could use the bathroom, or change a tire.
At that point, Detroit was coming back from the largest bankruptcy in American history. The city had endured years when police departments struggled to respond to calls promptly, and broken street lights left unfixed in the city, and deep darkness swept the night.
Police credit the cameras with a 60% decrease in carjackings since 2015.
Craig said his initial intention was to only activate the software’s real-time facial recognition feature, like in the event of a terrorist threat. He has since reversed from that possibility in the face of public disapproval.
His new system proposal to the oversight board will limit the technology to still photographs related to violent crime investigations and only after specific layers of protocols for approvals. He’s also vowed not to distribute images to the U.S. Immigration as well as Customs Enforcement for immigration investigations. Most importantly, to not use facial recognition to identify people at political events.
However, Amy Doukoure, a staff attorney for an organization that advocates for American Muslims, says it’s difficult to believe that he will stick to those promises.
The break down of the system is this. Detriot police have used this high technology to configure the suspect. The first step, to have an analyst run a surveillance image of the man’s face who’s under suspicion through their system of mug shots to pull all possible matches (an estimated 160.)
The first match is the one the computer recognized as the most likely choice but looks nothing like the suspect. The same will play out to be accurate following the next round of images until the system pulls someone who looks like the suspect.
Secondly, the analyst does further research by pulling up more mug shots as well as the man’s driver’s license photo, and all of his social media pages. The analyst looks to pictures found on the man’s Facebook profile which reveals him wearing a jacket similar to the one the shooter was wearing and sitting on a car identical to the one used on the evening of the crime. (Detroit police have issued an arrest warrant for the man but are still looking for him.)