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The new lawsuit that shows facial recognition is officially a civil rights issue

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The new lawsuit that shows facial recognition is officially a civil rights issue


Williams’s wrongful arrest, which was first reported by the New York Times in August 2020,  was based on a bad match from the Detroit Police Department’s facial recognition system. Two more instances of false arrests have since been made public. Both are also Black men, and both have taken legal action. 

Now Williams is following in their path and going further—not only by suing the department for his wrongful arrest, but by trying to get the technology banned. 

On Tuesday, the ACLU and the University of Michigan Law School’s Civil Rights Litigation Initiative filed a lawsuit on behalf of Williams, alleging that the arrest violated his Fourth Amendment rights and was in defiance of Michigan’s civil rights law.

The suit requests compensation, greater transparency about the use of facial recognition, and an end to the Detroit Police Department’s use of facial recognition technology, whether direct or indirect.

What the lawsuit says

The documents filed on Tuesday lay out the case. In March 2019, the DPD had run a grainy photo of a Black man with a red cap from Shinola’s surveillance video through its facial recognition system, made by a company called DataWorks Plus. The system returned a match with an old driver’s license photo of Williams. Investigating officers then included William’s license photo as part of a photo line-up, and a Shinola security contractor (who wasn’t actually present at the time of the theft) identified Williams as the thief. The officers obtained a warrant, which requires multiple sign-offs from department leadership, and Williams was arrested.

The complaint argues that the false arrest of Williams was a direct result of the facial recognition system, and that  “this wrongful arrest and imprisonment case exemplifies the grave harm caused by the misuse of, and reliance upon, facial recognition technology.” 

The case contains four counts, three of which focus on the lack of probable cause for the arrest while one focuses on the racial disparities in the impact of facial recognition. “By employing technology that is empirically proven to misidentify Black people at rates far higher than other groups of people,” it states, ”the DPD denied Mr. Williams the full and equal enjoyment of the Detroit Police Department’s services, privileges, and advantages because of his race or color.”

Facial recognition technology’s difficulties in identifying darker-skinned people are well documented. After the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, some cities and states announced bans and moratoriums on the police use of facial recognition. But many others, including Detroit, continued to use it despite growing concerns. 

“Relying on subpar images”

When MIT Technology review spoke with Williams’s ACLU lawyer, Phil Mayor, last year, he stressed that problems of racism within American law enforcement made the use of facial recognition even more concerning. 

“This isn’t a one-bad-actor situation,” Mayor said. “This is a situation in which we have a criminal legal system that is extremely quick to charge, and extremely slow to protect people’s rights, especially when we’re talking about people of color.”

Eric Williams, a senior staff attorney at the Economic Equity Practice in Detroit, says cameras have many technological limitations, not least that they are hard-coded with color ranges for recognizing skin tone and often simply cannot process darker skin.

“I think every Black person in the country has had the experience of being in a photo and the picture turns up either way lighter or way darker.”

“I think every Black person in the country has had the experience of being in a photo and the picture turns up either way lighter or way darker,” says Williams, who is a member of the ACLU of Michigan’s lawyers committee but is not working on the Robert Williams case. “Lighting is one of the primary factors when it comes to the quality of an image. So the fact that law enforcement is relying, to some degree … on really subpar images is problematic.” 

There have been cases that challenged biased algorithms and artificial-intelligence technologies on the basis of race. Facebook, for example, underwent a massive civil rights audit after its targeted advertising algorithms were found to serve ads on the basis of race, gender, and religion. YouTube was sued in a class action lawsuit by Black creators who alleged that its AI systems profile users and censor or discriminate against content on the basis of race. YouTube was also sued by LGBTQ+ creators who said that content moderation systems flagged the words “gay” and “lesbian.” 

Some experts say it was only a matter of time until the use of biased technology by a major institution like the police was met with legal challenges. 

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Donald ’67, SM ’69, and Glenda Mattes

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Donald ’67, SM ’69, and Glenda Mattes


Don Mattes started giving to the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT before he himself was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Since his death in 2020, his wife, Glenda, has carried forward Don’s passion for its work. “My wish is that no one ever has to go through the horrors of Alzheimer’s disease ever again,” Glenda says. The Matteses have also supported the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.

Legacy sparks hope. An early key employee of Andover Controls who later ran the company’s European operations, Don visited six continents with Glenda during their 30-year marriage—often to ski or bicycle. “Don’s was a life well lived, just too short,” Glenda says. The couple made provisions in their estate plan to support the Picower Institute. After Don died, Glenda made a gift to MIT of real estate that established both endowed and current-use funds there to support research on Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other neurodegenerative diseases. Glenda is a cancer survivor, and the gift also endowed a fund in the couple’s name at the Koch Institute.

Great discoveries being made at MIT: “Don always said the best thing he got from MIT was being taught how to think,” Glenda says. “MIT is an amazing place. Picower Institute director Li-Huei Tsai and her team are doing more than looking for a treatment for Alzheimer’s. They’re looking for the root cause of the disease. I am also fascinated with the Koch’s melding of engineering and biology. The chances they are going to solve the cancer issue someday are very high.” 

Help MIT build a better world.
For more information, contact Amy Goldman: (617) 253-4082;  goldmana@mit.edu. Or visit giving.mit.edu/planned-giving.

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Investing in women pays off

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Investing in women pays off


“Starting a business is a privilege,” says Burton O’Toole, who worked at various startups before launching and later selling AdMass, her own marketing technology company. The company gave her access to the HearstLab program in 2016, but she soon discovered that she preferred the investment aspect and became a vice president at HearstLab a year later. “To empower some of the smartest women to do what they love is great,” she says. But in addition to rooting for women, Burton O’Toole loves the work because it’s a great market opportunity. 

“Research shows female-led teams see two and a half times higher returns compared to male-led teams,” she says, adding that women and people of color tend to build more diverse teams and therefore benefit from varied viewpoints and perspectives. She also explains that companies with women on their founding teams are likely to get acquired or go public sooner. “Despite results like this, just 2.3% of venture capital funding goes to teams founded by women. It’s still amazing to me that more investors aren’t taking this data more seriously,” she says. 

Burton O’Toole—who earned a BS from Duke in 2007 before getting an MS and PhD from MIT, all in mechanical engineering—has been a “data nerd” since she can remember. In high school she wanted to become an actuary. “Ten years ago, I never could have imagined this work; I like the idea of doing something in 10 more years I couldn’t imagine now,” she says. 

When starting a business, Burton O’Toole says, “women tend to want all their ducks in a row before they act. They say, ‘I’ll do it when I get this promotion, have enough money, finish this project.’ But there’s only one good way. Make the jump.”

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late


All too often, the work of developing global disaster and climate resiliency happens when disaster—such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami—has already ravaged entire cities and torn communities apart. But Elizabeth Petheo, MBA ’14, says that recently her work has been focused on preparedness. 

It’s hard to get attention for preparedness efforts, explains Petheo, a principal at Miyamoto International, an engineering and disaster risk reduction consulting firm. “You can always get a lot of attention when there’s a disaster event, but at that point it’s too late,” she adds. 

Petheo leads the firm’s projects and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region and advises globally on international development and humanitarian assistance. She also works on preparedness in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States Agency for International Development. 

“We’re doing programming on the engagement of the private sector in disaster risk management in Indonesia, which is a very disaster-prone country,” she says. “Smaller and medium-sized businesses are important contributors to job creation and economic development. When they go down, the impact on lives, livelihoods, and the community’s ability to respond and recover effectively is extreme. We work to strengthen their own understanding of their risk and that of their surrounding community, lead them through an action-planning process to build resilience, and link that with larger policy initiatives at the national level.”

Petheo came to MIT with international leadership experience, having managed high-profile global development and risk mitigation initiatives at the World Bank in Washington, DC, as well as with US government agencies and international organizations leading major global humanitarian responses and teams in Sri Lanka and Haiti. But she says her time at Sloan helped her become prepared for this next phase in her career. “Sloan was the experience that put all the pieces together,” she says.

Petheo has maintained strong connections with MIT. In 2018, she received the Margaret L.A. MacVicar ’65, ScD ’67, Award in recognition of her role starting and leading the MIT Sloan Club in Washington, DC, and her work as an inaugural member of the Graduate Alumni Council (GAC). She is also a member of the Friends of the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.

“I believe deeply in the power and impact of the Institute’s work and people,” she says. “The moment I graduated, my thought process was, ‘How can I give back, and how can I continue to strengthen the experience of those who will come after me?’”

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