Tlaib releases bill banning facial recognition technology in public housing

Detroit Police | Susan J. Demas

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.

Rashida Tlaib | Wikimedia Commons

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.”

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.
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Susan J. Demas is an 18-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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