The Daily - Wrongfully Accused by an Algorithm

Facial recognition is becoming an increasingly central component of police departments’ efforts to solve crimes. But can algorithms harbor racial bias?Guest: Annie Brown, a producer for The New York Times, speaks with Kashmir Hill, a technology reporter, about her interview with Robert Julian-Borchak Williams, who was arrested after being misidentified as a criminal by an algorithm. For more information on today’s ep

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Content Keywords: baby mama Robert Williams prank call recognition
New York Times Michael Barbaro the daily


facial recognition is becoming an increasingly popular tool for solving crimes.

The dailies Annie Brown speaks to Kashmir Hill about how that software is not treating everybody equally.

It's Monday August 3rd.

Do you guys have any questions or concerns before we start talking about? What happened? Where do you think we should start the story of this case Kashmir the story started for the Williams family in January of 2022 Thursday afternoon in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which is just outside Detroit Williams. Our realtor is driving home from work. She's picking up her daughter. And what was right around like 4 and I got a call and she gets a call from somebody says they're a police officer. They immediately said

We're calling about Robert from an incident in 2018. He needs to turn himself in.

If you stop the back, she is White and her husband. Robert Williams is black and they said we assume you're his baby mama together anymore. And he said that's my husband and what is a 3 guard and they said we can't tell you but he needs to come turn himself in and I so why didn't you call a pimp and they said we can't you just give him a message and wait so why is it officer calling her is calling her all she knows is that the police want to be in touch with her husband, so she gives the officer her husband's number and then she calls Robert and I said, I just got a really weird call. But what did you do about Robert Williams gets a call from the police department.

And that I need to compare myself in so of course, I'm like for what means like what I can't tell you over the phone. So I'm like, well, I can't turn myself in a couple of days before his birthday. So he thought maybe it was a prank call but it became pretty clear that the person was serious when he pulled into his driveway a police car pull them behind him blocking him and and two officers get out. My run Japanese life is like I'm like, yeah, he's like, no I'm not.

And the guy comes over like a white sheet of paper and it said felony warrant on the top larceny and I'm confused like stealing his wife coming out with his two young daughters and his oldest daughter whose five is watching this happen in the house. I'll be back in a minute. They just making a mistake with a guy. The other cop is behind me.

When your hair comes out already, so he's like come on. Now. You already know the drill and I'm like what his hands behind his back because it's a really big guy we started moving seats around trying to get me in the back of his little bitty Impala and off we go and then they try to the action center.

I took fingerprints at pictures and he's putting us down to sleep overnight at this point.

with two other guys, and they might what you were here for and I'm like

I don't know. So when do you actually find out why you've been arrested be on this kind of vague Larson?


well, maybe like noon the next day.

Around noon the next day. He is taken to an interrogation room and there's two detectives there and they have three pieces of paper face down in front of them. They turn over, you know, the first sheet of paper and it's a picture from a surveillance video of a large black man standing at a store wearing a red Cardinals cap and a black jacket and the detectives ask is this you another paper and they turn over a second piece of paper, which is just a close-up of that same guy's face and the Robert picks a piece of paper up holds it next to his own face all black men. Look the same to you.

So what's your understanding Kashmir of what happened to bring Robert Williams into that police department. So Robert Williams had no idea what was happening. But earlier in October 2018 a man who was not him walk into a Shinola store in Downtown Detroit and China was kind of like a high-end store that sells expensive watches and bikes and since man came in he was there for a few minutes. He stole five watches worth $3,800 and walked out. None of the employees there actually saw the theft occur. And so they had to review the surveillance footage and they found the moment it happened. So they sent that surveillance footage picture that Robert Williams have been shown to the Detroit police and the police turn to what a lot of fleece turn TV's days when they have a suspect

Recognize a facial recognition system. So they ran a search on this what they called probe image this picture for the the surveillance video, which is really grainy. It's not a very good Soto the way the systems work is that they have access not just to mugshots but also to driver's license photos you get a bunch of different result and there's a human involved who decides which of the results looks the most like the person committed the crime.

They're saying the facial recognition algorithm basically created a lineup of potential suspects. And then from that line up someone picks the person that they think looks the most like the man in the surveillance video, right?

And so that is how they wound up arresting Robert Williams.

Back in this room have the real Robert Williams in front of them and he doesn't look like this guy computer got it wrong to and said I guess the computer got it wrong.

The computer got it wrong is what threw me off and on my computer got it wrong.

What is the significance of that statement that the computer. It wrong so this was an admission by the detectives that it was a computer that had pointed the finger at Robert Williams and that's significant because this is the first documented case of an innocent person being arrested because of a flawed facial recognition match.

This into context for a second the last time that you and I talked cashmere. We were talking about a different development and facial recognition this new algorithm being used by some police departments that Drew from pictures all over social media and all over the Internet to make a kind of super algorithm, but the fear wasn't that it wasn't accurate. It was almost that it was too accurate that it knew too much. But what you're describing is something altogether different, right? So when we talk about facial recognition we often think of it is a monolith that there's kind of one facial recognition. But in fact, there's a bunch of different companies that I'll have their own algorithms and some work well and some don't work well and some work. Well, sometimes like identify a really clear photo

Is a lot easier than identifying surveillance footage and why wouldn't Police Department's be using the most sophisticated the most kind of up-to-date version of the software on this is where you run into just your ocracy, right? You have contracts with companies that go back years and just a lot of different vendor. I'm so in this case. I tried to figure out exactly who's algorithms were responsible for Robert Williams getting arrested and I had to really dig down and I discovered the police had no idea you had a contract out to a company called dataworks + x + contracts out to two other company is called NEC and rank one actually Supply. The algorithm is this whole chain of companies that are involved and there's no standardized testing. There's no one really regulating this there's just nobody saying which algorithms

You know passed the test to be used by law enforcement. It's just up to police officers who for the most part seem to be just testing in the field to see if it works if it's identifying the right people.

But the really big problem is that these systems have been proven to be bias.

We'll be right back.

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Help me understand how an algorithm can become biased the biased has to come from how the algorithm is trained and trained by basically feeding them with a bunch of images of people, but the problem is the algorithm says that they tended to be trained with non-diverse State assets that many of the algorithms used by law enforcement in the US by government in the US are very good at recognizing white men and not as good at recognizing black people are asian-americans, but if you go to an algorithm from a company in China where they said it with a lot of images of Asian people, they're really good at recognizing Asian people as good at recognizing white men. So you can just you can see the biases that come in from the kind of data that we feed into the systems. And is this a widely agree?

On reality. Because of these methods the algorithms used in the US are just worse at identifying faces that aren't white men a few years ago as an MIT researcher did the study and found that he's working Mission algorithms were biased to be able to recognize white men better and shortly after that missed the National Institute of Standards and Technology decide to study on this and it looked at over a hundred different algorithms and it found that they were biased and actually the two algorithms that were at the heart of this case at Robert Williams is case wherein not study so the algorithm that was used by this Police Department was actually studied by the federal government and was proven to be biased against faces like Robert Williams, exactly given these widely understood problem.

With these algorithms how can police department's justify continuing to use them the police departments are aware of the bias problem, but they feel that face recognition is just too valuable a tool and their tool set to solve crimes and their defense is that they never arrest somebody based on facial recognition alone that facial recognition is only what they call an investigative lead. It doesn't Supply probable cause for arrest. So what place are supposed to do is go to the person, you know social media account and see if there are other photos of them wearing the same clothes that they were wearing on the day. They committed this crime or you know, you can try to get proof that they were in that part of town on the date of this after curd new try to get location data physically find other evidence that this person is a person that

Edit the crime, but in the case of Robert Williams, they didn't do any other investigating based on that day. They went out and they arrested mr. Williams.

But if the police had done their job correctly if they had looked into his social media accounts if they had tried to get his location data from his phone records essentially surveilling him more closely wouldn't that be its own sort of violation? Just because their technology wrongfully identify this man, he gets more closely watched by the police without his knowledge. Right and this is actually what police asked the facial-recognition vendors to do. They want to have more what you call false positives because they want to have the greatest pool of possible suspects that they can cuz they want to find the bad guy but there is there's a real toll from that. I just as a person has been reporting on technology for a decade. I just think people trust computers and even when we know something is flawed.

If it's a computer telling us to do it, we just think it's right and this is why we always used to see for a long time mapping technology was first being developed and it wasn't that great. You know people would drive into lakes. They would drive over Cliffs because a mapping app said you're supposed to go straight here. And even though they look and see that their life is going to be in danger if they would think this at must know what is talking about that's facial recognition. Now the story all the experts I talked to the this is surely not the first case where somebody has been mistakenly sent person has been mistakenly arrested because of a bad face recognition a match but usually people don't find out about it. Please don't tell people that they're there because of face recognition and it's usually when they charge them those who say they were identified through investigative means is kind of a vague there were clues that pointed at you.

Play Roberts case was unusual because there was still a little evidence against him a basically had to tell him that they use facial recognition, you know to put him there, right? They showed him what most people don't get to see which is this false match between his photo and the photo of the crime, right?

And what's happened since Robert was arrested.

So Robert had to hire a lawyer to defend himself, but when he went to the hearing the prosecutor decided to drop the case, but they dropped it without prejudice which meant that they could charge him again for the same crime with the same crime. So as I was reporting on the story, you know, I went to the prosecutor's office. I went to the Detroit Police Department. If I said, you know, what happened here. Did you have any other evidence is just seems like a clear misfire and misuse of facial recognition and everyone involved was pretty defensive and said, well, you know what there might be more evidence that proves the Robert Williams did but after the story came out everybody's to change dramatically Prosecutors Office apologize said that Robert Williams should know spend any time in jail the police department that this was a horrible investigation. The police officers involved just did this all wrong.

Best at work, and they said that Robert Williams would have his information expunged from the system his mugshot his DNA and they personally apologize to the Williams family that no one ever actually called them to personally apologize but he can no longer be charged in the future for this crime. That's exactly right.

And what about their use of facial recognition software? Has there been any change there? So one thing the Detroit Police Department said was well this was you know, this was a case that predates this new policy. We have that says, you know, we're only supposed to be using facial recognition for violent crimes. What do you make of that was their justification is that when it comes to violent crimes when it comes to murder, you know rape they need to solve these cases and they'll use any clue they can to do it including facial recognition, but I think about something that Roberts wife said

What if you'd been argumentative if you've been complied?

in what could have turned into in our yard like

it could have went a different way.

In the recent news has shown us that it definitely could have went a different way.

Do you feel like there's a shame to this that the police arrested you even did nothing?

It's a little humiliating just being honest. It's not it's not something easily rolls off the tongue like oh, yeah, and guess what I got arrested.

And what about for Robert himself what has life been like for him after the arrest. So it was very embarrassing for him to be kind of painful in some ways to get a perfect attendance at work until that day that he was arrested and his wife had to say that they had a family emergency and then he couldn't show up. Once he did tell his boss what happened his boss said you don't want to tell other people at work, you know could be bad for you than he got home. His daughter is 5 year old was still awake. We were still up and all I what are you doing up for you? And I was like, I told you I'll be right back and she's like you didn't come right back up.

So I just kept on them that they made a mistake and it just took longer than we expected but she started wanting to play cops and robbers and she would always pretend like she was the robber who stole something and she would need to lock him up in the living room.

Yeah, she told us that she told one of her Jackson her friend at school.

Picture did she tell?

We're not sure and we didn't know what to say to people like just bring it up out of nowhere. I like. Oh, yeah, anyone mentioned that he was arrested, but he didn't do anything.

I just made you look back to see where like where you were October 2018 Facebook on my Instagram live. He has since look back and realize that he had posted to Instagram at basically the same time as a shoplifting was occurring. He was driving home from work and a song came on the radio that his mother loved the song We Are One by Maze and Frankie Beverly way home in the car.

So if a cop's had looked into his social media if they had tried to verify that it was possible that he could have committed this crime. They could have found this video, right? If the police had on a real investigation, they would have found out he had an alibi that day.

How to write thank you so much. Thank you.

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