The Michigan Advance: Tlaib releases bill banning facial recognition technology in public housing

July 26, 2019
In The News

As a debate rages in Detroit over the police department’s use of sophisticated software that can identify and recognize faces, a Michigan lawmaker has introduced legislation clamping down on the technology.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) and two of her Capitol Hill colleagues announced on Thursday they’re sponsoring a measure that would protect public housing residents from being subjected to biometric technologies in their homes.

The “No Biometric Barriers Housing Act of 2019” legislation would outlaw the usage of facial and biometric recognition in most federally funded public housing, Tlaib said. U.S. Reps. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) are co-sponsors.

“We’ve heard from privacy experts, researchers who study facial recognition technology and community members who have well-founded concerns about the implementation of this technology and its implications for racial justice,” said Tlaib.

The legislation also would require the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to submit a report to Congress about how the technology interplays within the public housing sector and its tenants. More than 2 million residents live in public housing nationwide, according to Tlaib. The legislation includes HUD federally assisted rental dwelling units.

“We cannot allow residents of HUD funded properties to be criminalized and marginalized with the use of biometric products like facial recognition technology,” Tlaib said. “We must be centered on working to provide permanent, safe, and affordable housing to every resident – and unfortunately, this technology does not do that.”

The use of facial recognition technology has sparked intense debate in the Motor City as the Detroit Police Department considers how to implement it. The department has been using the technology in its Project Green Light program for roughly a year and a half to identify suspects, but there’s no formal policy on its use.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan issued a strongly worded letter last week to residents declaring his opposition to the tool for “surveillance.”

“The Detroit Police Department does not and will not use facial recognition technology to track or follow people in the City of Detroit. Period,” he wrote. “Detroiters should not ever have to worry that the camera they see at a gas station or a street corner is trying to find them or track them.”

But Duggan said but said he believes the software can be an investigative tool in solving crime.

“The most painful moments I experience as Mayor are conversations with the families of victims who just want to know when the police are going to make an arrest in the shooting,” he wrote. “Those conversations are even more painful when the family knows the police have a picture of the offender and still can’t make an ID. Facial recognition software can be very important in bringing peace to those families.”

A May U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on the technology focused on the Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology report on Detroit’s program. Tlaib raised a number of issues with the technology, as did U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (I-Cascade Twp.), a libertarian with a long track record on civil liberties who was particularly concerned about privacy violations.

Some experts argue  that Black and Brown communities are disproportionately harmed by the technology and it produces errors. MIT researcher Joy Boulamwini testified at the committee that the Amazon Rekognition technology, for instance, had “error rates of over 30% for darker skin females and 0% error rates for lighter skin men.”

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