Minneapolis to weigh ban on police use of facial recognition software

By: - January 21, 2021 9:00 am

A Minneapolis Police Department squad car at the scene of a fatal car crash at the intersection of 36th Avenue North and Aldrich Avenue North in Minneapolis on May 1, 2019. Photo by Tony Webster.

Minneapolis City Council will consider a proposal to ban the police from using facial recognition software next month over concerns the technology violates civil liberties.

Civil liberties advocates for years have voiced strong opposition to police using the technology, citing research showing it’s ineffective at identifying non-white people, meaning its use could deepen existing racial inequities in city policing.

“Facial recognition technology poses serious ethical and legal dangers to Minneapolis community members and passage of this ordinance will represent a significant victory for civil liberties,” said Chris Weiland, co-chair of a group called Restore the Fourth Minnesota, referring to the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that bans unreasonable search and seizure.

To date, just a few cities have banned the technology — Boston, San Francisco and Portland — with more cities taking the issue up as the technology becomes more widespread.

The Minneapolis proposal, sponsored by Council Member Steve Fletcher, would bar the Minneapolis Police Department from purchasing or using facial recognition technology. That includes technology currently used by the police department from Clearview AI.

Clearview AI scrapes the entire internet for pictures of faces to cross compare during criminal investigations. The company claims to have scraped over 3 billion images from social media alone, providing law enforcement agencies with a database that includes pictures of people who have never been accused of a crime nor opted into the service.

Law enforcement agencies have heralded the technology as a major breakthrough in investigating crimes. Investigators across the United States have used Clearview AI technology to locate child victims of abuse, for example. In New York, other facial recognition software has been used to uncover identity theft and fraud by scanning the state’s driver’s license database.

The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office has operated facial recognition software since 2018, and has allowed outside law enforcement agencies to use it, including the Minneapolis Police Department. Revelations about a previous effort by Hennepin County to use the technology raised alarms amid privacy advocates.

Criminal Intelligence analysts within Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office use a product created by Cognitech to analyze video evidence and routinely collaborate with the Minneapolis Police Department during these investigations. The sheriff’s office refers to facial recognition by the more innocuous term, “investigative imagining technology.”

The Star Tribune recently reported on investigative agencies’ widespread reliance on facial recognition, reporting police have run nearly 1,000 searches through the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office’s system since 2018. The ban proposed by Fletcher would not bar other law enforcement agencies from using facial recognition technology within the city.

Minneapolis spokesman John Elder declined to comment on the proposal and said Chief Medaria Arrandondo will review the policy language when it’s finalized.

A number of reports and studies have called into question the accuracy of facial-recognition. The Detroit chief of police said that the department’s software in use there misidentified 96% of the time, and public records from the force showed that it was almost exclusively used on Black people in 2019.

The use of facial recognition has also been linked to at least two false arrests in Detroit, and the lawyers of one falsely arrested man believe there are many more victims.

Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology and Military Equipment, which is a local coalition of community groups set up to fight the technology, warns of both privacy concerns and security flaws, making the product both unsafe and unreliable.

Also concerning for civil libertarians: The January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol could unleash a new wave of anti-terrorism legislation that could allow the government to more easily examine private data, especially after media reports hailed technology like facial recognition for helping catch Trump extremists.

“Use of mass facial recognition this month sets a dangerous precedent,” said Weiland of Restore the Fourth. “The assault on the Capitol threatened core tenets of American civic life, but the solution should not require the compromise of our other civil liberties.”

Jason Kelley of the Electronic Frontier Foundation said law enforcement facial recognition software Clearview has reportedly seen a huge increase in usage since the Jan. 6 attack.

“Yet the faceprints in Clearview’s database were collected, without consent, from millions of unsuspecting users across the web,” Kelly said. “This means that police are comparing images of the rioters to those of many millions of individuals who were never involved — probably including yours.”

The proposed ban on facial recognition by Minneapolis police includes a mechanism for exceptions, though only after public hearings.

Fletcher, who did not immediately return a request for comment, will participate in a virtual town hall on the issue Tuesday at 6 p.m. The City Council is scheduled to take a final vote on the proposal on Feb. 12.

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Sam Richards
Sam Richards

Sam Richards is an investigative reporter focusing on government surveillance.

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