Man wrongfully arrested in the US warns Ireland against facial recognition tech

Man wrongfully arrested in the US warns Ireland against facial recognition tech

Robert Williams

A man who was wrongfully arrested and detained in the US based on facial recognition technology (FRT) has called on Helen McEntee not to introduce the technology into Irish policing.

Robert Williams spoke at an event hosted by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) last week in Dublin, alongside Nathan Freed Wessler, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

In January 2020, Mr Williams was arrested in his driveway in front of his wife and children after facial recognition technology had misidentified him as having been involved in a robbery. He was subsequently detained by police for 30 hours.

Mr Williams told the event: “I never thought I’d have to explain to my daughters why Daddy got arrested. How am I supposed to explain to two little girls that a computer got it wrong, but the police listened to it anyway?

“Federal studies have shown that facial-recognition systems misidentify Asian and Black people up to 100 times more often than white people. My daughters can’t unsee me being handcuffed and put into a police car, but they can see me use this experience to bring some good into the world.

“In America, we’re trying to undo the harms that FRT has already done. Here in Ireland, you have an opportunity not to introduce it in the first place. I hope your government will listen to experiences like mine and think twice before bringing FRT into policing.”

Mr Wessler, deputy director with the ACLU’s speech, privacy and technology project, said: “Facial recognition technology is dangerous when it fails, and dangerous when it functions.

“The technology is notoriously unreliable when used in real-world conditions, and in the US it is at the centre of at least seven known wrongful arrest cases. And even if the technology worked better, it would still put a chilling power in the hands of police to identify and track anyone or everyone as we go about our lives.

“Evidence has repeatedly shown that this technology is dangerously unreliable and that it subjects Black and Brown people to higher rates of misidentification, particularly when used in law enforcement settings. Nearly every known case of a wrongful arrest due to police reliance on incorrect face recognition results has involved the arrest of a Black person.

“Police in the US rushed into adoption of this dangerous technology, and predictable harms resulted. Ireland can avoid repeating those mistakes by opting never to introduce FRT into Irish policing.”

The Irish government’s Garda Síochána (Recording Devices) (Amendment) Bill 2023 will give gardaí access to FRT. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) is among groups campaigning against the proposed law.

Liam Herrick, ICCL executive director, said: “Facial recognition technology is highly intrusive, biased, racist and inaccurate. Introducing it for An Garda Síochána would completely change Irish policing and the relationship between gardaí and the communities they serve, in particular minoritised communities.

“More than two years after the minister announced her plans to introduce facial recognition technology and three months after the Oireachtas justice committee highlighted serious deficiencies with the draft bill, we still do not have answers to basic questions about the rationale for its introduction, how it would work and how people’s rights would be protected.

“We are delighted to be hosting Robert and Nathan in Dublin this week and hope that as many people as possible — including the Minister and all members of the Oireachtas — will listen to the evidence, and the experiences with this technology in the US.”

Share icon
Share this article: