Let’s talk about subtle ways to change the behavior of others….

Wrongfully Accused by an Algorithm

In what may be the first known case of its kind, a faulty facial recognition match led to a Michigan man’s arrest for a crime he did not commit.

On a Thursday afternoon in January, Robert Julian-Borchak Williams was in his office at an automotive supply company when he got a call from the Detroit Police Department telling him to come to the station to be arrested. He thought at first that it was a prank.

An hour later, when he pulled into his driveway in a quiet subdivision in Farmington Hills, Mich., a police car pulled up behind, blocking him in. Two officers got out and handcuffed Mr. Williams on his front lawn, in front of his wife and two young daughters, who were distraught. The police wouldn’t say why he was being arrested, only showing him a piece of paper with his photo and the words “felony warrant” and “larceny.”

His wife, Melissa, asked where he was being taken. “Google it,” she recalls an officer replying.

The police drove Mr. Williams to a detention center. He had his mug shot, fingerprints and DNA taken, and was held overnight. Around noon on Friday, two detectives took him to an interrogation room and placed three pieces of paper on the table, face down.

“When’s the last time you went to a Shinola store?” one of the detectives asked, in Mr. Williams’s recollection. Shinola is an upscale boutique that sells watches, bicycles and leather goods in the trendy Midtown neighborhood of Detroit. Mr. Williams said he and his wife had checked it out when the store first opened in 2014.

The detective turned over the first piece of paper. It was a still image from a surveillance video, showing a heavyset man, dressed in black and wearing a red St. Louis Cardinals cap, standing in front of a watch display. Five timepieces, worth $3,800, were shoplifted.

“Is this you?” asked the detective.

The second piece of paper was a close-up. The photo was blurry, but it was clearly not Mr. Williams. He picked up the image and held it next to his face.

“No, this is not me,” Mr. Williams said. “You think all black men look alike?”

Mr. Williams knew that he had not committed the crime in question. What he could not have known, as he sat in the interrogation room, is that his case may be the first known account of an American being wrongfully arrested based on a flawed match from a facial recognition algorithm, according to experts on technology and the law.

A nationwide debate is raging about racism in law enforcement. Across the country, millions are protesting not just the actions of individual officers, but bias in the systems used to surveil communities and identify people for prosecution.

Facial recognition systems have been used by police forces for more than two decades. Recent studies by M.I.T. and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, have found that while the technology works relatively well on white men, the results are less accurate for other demographics, in part because of a lack of diversity in the images used to develop the underlying databases.

Last year, during a public hearing about the use of facial recognition in Detroit, an assistant police chief was among those who raised concerns. “On the question of false positives — that is absolutely factual, and it’s well-documented,” James White said. “So that concerns me as an African-American male.”

This monthAmazonMicrosoft and IBM announced they would stop or pause their facial recognition offerings for law enforcement. The gestures were largely symbolic, given that the companies are not big players in the industry. The technology police departments use is supplied by companies that aren’t household names, such as Vigilant Solutions, Cognitec, NEC, Rank One Computing and Clearview AI.

Clare Garvie, a lawyer at Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology, has written about problems with the government’s use of facial recognition. She argues that low-quality search images — such as a still image from a grainy surveillance video — should be banned, and that the systems currently in use should be tested rigorously for accuracy and bias.

“There are mediocre algorithms and there are good ones, and law enforcement should only buy the good ones,” Ms. Garvie said.

About Mr. Williams’s experience in Michigan, she added: “I strongly suspect this is not the first case to misidentify someone to arrest them for a crime they didn’t commit. This is just the first time we know about it.”

Mr. Williams’s case combines flawed technology with poor police work, illustrating how facial recognition can go awry.

The Shinola shoplifting occurred in October 2018. Katherine Johnston, an investigator at Mackinac Partners, a loss prevention firm, reviewed the store’s surveillance video and sent a copy to the Detroit police, according to their report.

Five months later, in March 2019, Jennifer Coulson, a digital image examiner for the Michigan State Police, uploaded a “probe image” — a still from the video, showing the man in the Cardinals cap — to the state’s facial recognition database. The system would have mapped the man’s face and searched for similar ones in a collection of 49 million photos.

The state’s technology is supplied for $5.5 million by a company called DataWorks Plus. Founded in South Carolina in 2000, the company first offered mug shot management software, said Todd Pastorini, a general manager. In 2005, the firm began to expand the product, adding face recognition tools developed by outside vendors.

When one of these subcontractors develops an algorithm for recognizing faces, DataWorks attempts to judge its effectiveness by running searches using low-quality images of individuals it knows are present in a system. “We’ve tested a lot of garbage out there,” Mr. Pastorini said. These checks, he added, are not “scientific” — DataWorks does not formally measure the systems’ accuracy or bias.

“We’ve become a pseudo-expert in the technology,” Mr. Pastorini said.

In Michigan, the DataWorks software used by the state police incorporates components developed by the Japanese tech giant NEC and by Rank One Computing, based in Colorado, according to Mr. Pastorini and a state police spokeswoman. In 2019, algorithms from both companies were included in a federal study of over 100 facial recognition systems that found they were biased, falsely identifying African-American and Asian faces 10 times to 100 times more than Caucasian faces.

Rank One’s chief executive, Brendan Klare, said the company had developed a new algorithm for NIST to review that “tightens the differences in accuracy between different demographic cohorts.”

After Ms. Coulson, of the state police, ran her search of the probe image, the system would have provided a row of results generated by NEC and a row from Rank One, along with confidence scores. Mr. Williams’s driver’s license photo was among the matches. Ms. Coulson sent it to the Detroit police as an “Investigative Lead Report.”

This document is not a positive identification,” the file says in bold capital letters at the top. “It is an investigative lead only and is not probable cause for arrest.

This is what technology providers and law enforcement always emphasize when defending facial recognition: It is only supposed to be a clue in the case, not a smoking gun. Before arresting Mr. Williams, investigators might have sought other evidence that he committed the theft, such as eyewitness testimony, location data from his phone or proof that he owned the clothing that the suspect was wearing.

In this case, however, according to the Detroit police report, investigators simply included Mr. Williams’s picture in a “6-pack photo lineup” they created and showed to Ms. Johnston, Shinola’s loss-prevention contractor, and she identified him. (Ms. Johnston declined to comment.)

Mr. Pastorini was taken aback when the process was described to him. “It sounds thin all the way around,” he said.

Mr. Klare, of Rank One, found fault with Ms. Johnston’s role in the process. “I am not sure if this qualifies them as an eyewitness, or gives their experience any more weight than other persons who may have viewed that same video after the fact,” he said. John Wise, a spokesman for NEC, said: “A match using facial recognition alone is not a means for positive identification.”

The Friday that Mr. Williams sat in a Detroit police interrogation room was the day before his 42nd birthday. That morning, his wife emailed his boss to say he would miss work because of a family emergency; it broke his four-year record of perfect attendance.

In Mr. Williams’s recollection, after he held the surveillance video still next to his face, the two detectives leaned back in their chairs and looked at one another. One detective, seeming chagrined, said to his partner: “I guess the computer got it wrong.”

They turned over a third piece of paper, which was another photo of the man from the Shinola store next to Mr. Williams’s driver’s license. Mr. Williams again pointed out that they were not the same person.

Mr. Williams asked if he was free to go. “Unfortunately not,” one detective said.

Mr. Williams was kept in custody until that evening, 30 hours after being arrested, and released on a $1,000 personal bond. He waited outside in the rain for 30 minutes until his wife could pick him up. When he got home at 10 p.m., his five-year-old daughter was still awake. She said she was waiting for him because he had said, while being arrested, that he’d be right back.

She has since taken to playing “cops and robbers” and accuses her father of stealing things, insisting on “locking him up” in the living room.

The Williams family contacted defense attorneys, most of whom, they said, assumed Mr. Williams was guilty of the crime and quoted prices of around $7,000 to represent him. Ms. Williams, a real estate marketing director and food blogger, also tweeted at the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which took an immediate interest.

We’ve been active in trying to sound the alarm bells around facial recognition, both as a threat to privacy when it works and a racist threat to everyone when it doesn’t,” said Phil Mayor, an attorney at the organization. “We know these stories are out there, but they’re hard to hear about because people don’t usually realize they’ve been the victim of a bad facial recognition search.”

Two weeks after his arrest, Mr. Williams took a vacation day to appear in a Wayne County court for an arraignment. When the case was called, the prosecutor moved to dismiss, but “without prejudice,” meaning Mr. Williams could later be charged again.

Maria Miller, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor, said a second witness had been at the store in 2018 when the shoplifting occurred, but had not been asked to look at a photo lineup. If the individual makes an identification in the future, she said, the office will decide whether to issue charges.

A Detroit police spokeswoman, Nicole Kirkwood, said that for now, the department “accepted the prosecutor’s decision to dismiss the case.” She also said that the department updated its facial recognition policy in July 2019 so that it is only used to investigate violent crimes.

The department, she said in another statement, “does not make arrests based solely on facial recognition. The investigator reviewed video, interviewed witnesses, conducted a photo lineup.”

On Wednesday, the A.C.L.U. of Michigan filed a complaint with the city, asking for an absolute dismissal of the case, an apology and the removal of Mr. Williams’s information from Detroit’s criminal databases.

The Detroit Police Department “should stop using facial recognition technology as an investigatory tool,” Mr. Mayor wrote in the complaint, adding, “as the facts of Mr. Williams’s case prove both that the technology is flawed and that DPD investigators are not competent in making use of such technology.”

Mr. Williams’s lawyer, Victoria Burton-Harris, said that her client is “lucky,” despite what he went through.

He is alive,” Ms. Burton-Harris said. He is a very large man. My experience has been, as a defense attorney, when officers interact with very large men, very large black men, they immediately act out of fear. They don’t know how to de-escalate a situation.”

Mr. Williams and his wife have not talked to their neighbors about what happened. They wonder whether they need to put their daughters into therapy. Mr. Williams’s boss advised him not to tell anyone at work.

My mother doesn’t know about it. It’s not something I’m proud of,” Mr. Williams said. “It’s humiliating.”

He has since figured out what he was doing the evening the shoplifting occurred. He was driving home from work, and had posted a video to his private Instagram because a song he loved came on — 1983’s “We Are One,” by Maze and Frankie Beverly. The lyrics go:

I can’t understand

Why we treat each other in this way

Taking up time

With the silly silly games we play

He had an alibi, had the Detroit police checked for one.

Aaron Krolik contributed reporting.

It’s almost as if Trump is determined to destroy the Republican Party

Let me summarize the Republican platform for the coming election:

  • We are the party of white racial grievance. We believe
  • those marching in Black Lives Matter protests are “thugs.”
  • We see the term “systemic racism” as an unfair attack on white people.
  • We support keeping Confederate monuments on their pedestals, and
  • we have no idea why anyone would consider Confederate flags a problem.
  • We are equal-opportunity racists.
  • We see Latino immigrants as “bad hombres.” And
  • we believe that using the racist term “kung flu” to describe covid-19 is hilarious, not least because
  • we are convinced the covid-19 pandemic is basically over, anyway.
  • Who cares what pointy-headed “experts” might say — we know in our hearts that patriotic Americans don’t wear masks.

Those are some of the views Republicans endorse by uncritically embracing and supporting President Trump. He is leading his party down a sewer of unabashed racism and willful ignorance, and all who follow him — and I mean all — deserve to feel the mighty wrath of voters in November.

I’m talking to you, Sen.

  • Susan Collins of Maine. And you, Sen.
  • Cory Gardner of Colorado. And you, Sens.
  • Thom Tillis of North Carolina,
  • Martha McSally of Arizona,
  • Joni Ernst of Iowa,
  • Steve Daines of Montana,
  • Kelly Loeffler of Georgia and
  • John Cornyn of Texas.

And while those of you in deep-red states whose reelection ordinarily would be seen as a mere formality may not see the giant millstones you’ve hung around your necks as a real risk, think again. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina and even Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, you should look at the numbers and realize you are putting your Senate seats — and the slim GOP majority — in dire jeopardy.

You can run and hide from reporters asking you about Trump’s latest statements or tweets. You can pretend not to hear shouted questions as you hurry down Capitol hallways. You can take out your cellphones and feign being engrossed in a terribly important call. Ultimately, you’re going to have to answer to voters — and in the meantime you have decided to let Trump speak for you. Best of luck with that.

It is not really surprising that Trump, with his poll numbers falling and his reelection in serious jeopardy, would decide to use race and public health as wedge issues to inflame his loyal base. That’s all he knows how to do.

Most politicians would see plunging poll numbers as a warning to try a different approach; Trump takes them as a sign to do more of the same — more race-baiting, more authoritarian “law and order” posturing, more see-no-evil denial of a raging pandemic that has cost more than 120,000 American lives.

Racism is a feature of the Trump shtick, not a bug. He sees the nationwide protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd as an opportunity not for healing and reform, but to stir anger and resentment among his overwhelmingly white voting base. Trump wants no part of the reckoning with history the country seems to crave.

This week, city officials in Charleston, S.C. — the place where the Civil War began — took down a statue of John C. Calhoun, a leading 19th-century politician and fierce defender of slavery, from its 115-foot column in Marion Square and hauled it away to a warehouse. Also this week, Trump reportedly demanded that the District’s monument to Confederate Gen. Albert Pike, toppled last week by protesters, be cleaned up and reinstalled exactly as it was.

Trump went to Arizona not just to falsely claim great progress on building his promised border wall, intended to keep out the “hombres,” but also to delight fervent young supporters by referring to covid-19 as “kung flu.” Weeks ago, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said that racist term was clearly offensive and unacceptable. But since Trump has made it into a red-meat applause line, Conway now apparently thinks it’s a perfectly legitimate way to identify the virus’s country of origin.

All the other Republicans who fail to speak up while Trump runs the most nakedly racist presidential campaign since George Wallace in 1968 shouldn’t kid themselves. Their silence amounts to agreement. Perhaps there’s enough white bitterness out there to carry the Republican Party to another narrow win. But that’s not what the polls say.

Trump’s antics are self-defeating. He’ll put on a racist show for a shrinking audience, but he won’t wear the masks that could allow the economic reopening he desperately wants. He may be able to avoid reality, but the Republican governors — including Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida — scrambling desperately to contain new outbreaks cannot.

It’s almost as though Trump is determined to destroy the Republican Party. Let’s give him his wish.

The Head Of CrossFit Told Staff On A Zoom Call, “We’re Not Mourning For George Floyd”

Hours before he posted a controversial tweet on Saturday night that has sparked backlash for his company, Greg Glassman, CrossFit’s CEO and founder, told gym owners on a private Zoom call, “We’re not mourning for George Floyd — I don’t think me or any of my staff are,” according to a full recording of the meeting obtained by BuzzFeed News.

Can you tell me why I should mourn for him? Other than that it’s the white thing to do — other than that, give me another reason,” he asked a Minneapolis gym owner who had questioned why the brand hadn’t posted a statement about the protests across the country after the death of George Floyd.

The 75-minute Zoom call, which was sent to BuzzFeed News via its secure tipline, was a part of an initiative that CrossFit had started after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered gyms across the country. CrossFit affiliate owners who spoke with BuzzFeed News said they were invited at random to the check-in calls over the past three months with Glassman and other staffers from CrossFit’s corporate headquarters.

The call was held hours before Glassman responded to a tweet on Saturday night that called racism a public health issue, writing, “It’s FLOYD-19.” His tweet drew immediate backlash from gym owners and caused Reebok to end a partnership deal with the company. CrossFit subsequently posted an apology on Glassman’s behalf, calling his words “not racist but a mistake.”

“Floyd is a hero in the black community and not just a victim,” he said in his public apology. “I should have been sensitive to that and wasn’t. I apologize for that.”

But during the Zoom call hours earlier, which had been between 16 affiliates and staff members, Glassman repeatedly expressed doubts about whether systemic racism existed and questioned the motives of protests around the country.

“I doubt very much that they’re mourning for Floyd,” Glassman said on the call about protesters and CrossFitters who were looking for the company to speak out. “I don’t think that there’s a general mourning for Floyd in any community.”

He also recounted unfounded conspiracy theories on the call that included speculation Floyd was killed to “silence him” due to a purported, baseless role in a criminal conspiracy involving counterfeit money.

Glassman speculated that the nightclub where both Floyd and his alleged killer, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, worked has “been under investigation by the FBI for over a decade for laundering money.”

“It’s very interesting that George gets popped with counterfeits, and who comes but the head of security from the dance club? Watch: This thing’s going to turn into first-degree murder,” he said. “That’s what it’s going to turn into. And it’s going to be because I’m predicting this. We have friends in the FBI in your neighborhood, and they’re of the view that this was first-degree murder and it was to silence him over the counterfeit money. That’s the belief. That’s what the cops think.”

Glassman and representatives for CrossFit did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. BuzzFeed News is publishing select clips from the call, but not the full audio, in order to protect the identity of the source who shared it.

Listen to clips of Glassman on the call, edited together by BuzzFeed News to protect the identity of the source who shared it.

During the call, Glassman also complained about looting and buildings that had been set on fire. He questioned the legitimacy of the protest movement that has gripped the nation in the three weeks since Floyd’s death.

“Moved to action? Burning the city down, is that the action? Destruction of Black- and minority-owned businesses, is that the action?” Glassman asked while speaking to a gym owner from Minneapolis who detailed what their members had been doing to help the community in the aftermath of nights of looting and protests.

“I would prefer a trial of a murderer rather than burning the city down. I think that the law has a better response. I think burning your city to the ground and burning a police station to the ground because a cop killed what was very likely going to be a coconspirator in a counterfeit ring — I just don’t get the burning thing. How about the Black cop that was killed?” Glassman said later in the call, adding that he wasn’t going to “fund antifa” — another conspiracy theory — because “a guy got killed.”

Glassman told the owners on the call that “killing George was wrong” before adding that “burning the town down was wrong, killing the Black cop was wrong, and the Black-on-Black murder every weekend in every one of our cities is a tragedy.”

He told the Minneapolis gym owner on the call that he thought the city’s plans to defund the police department were “terrifying” after they outlined how their community was trying to rebuild from Floyd’s death.

“It sounds like more of the same. It sounds like punishing the cops. It sounds like blaming the police for all of the problems in blighted communities, and I don’t think anything could be farther from the truth. Have you ever done a ride-along with cops in a rough neighborhood?” Glassman said. “You don’t have to answer, but I have many, many times, and that is crazy tough work and almost all of the men and women are professionals.“

During a lengthy discussion on the coronavirus, Glassman again shared more unfounded theories. “The Chinese let this virus get out of the laboratory, and that indeed did happen,” he said. (US intelligence officials have said they have not formally concluded whether the virus emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.)

Glassman also trashed epidemiology as “a social science,” said upstate New Yorkers should secede from the rest of their state due to the strict lockdown measures in New York City, and urged gym owners to only pretend to comply with health precautions when they reopen.

“It was a panic. Absolute panic right from the start. And I think it’s inevitable that it’s going to turn out that this has cost way more lives than have been saved. Way more,” he said. “At some point, you’ve got to do what’s right, and it may not come with approval. It may not be seen as the right thing to do, but you still have to do it. It’s the burden.”

“I was asked by the Italians, ‘What would you do, coach?’ And I said, ‘I would agree to any restrictions put on me by the health authorities, and I would open my gym, and then 10 minutes later I would do whatever the fuck I wanted. That’s what I would do.'”

Mike Young — the owner of a fitness facility in Morrisville, North Carolina, that contains a CrossFit affiliate — was one of the people on the call. He’d had the franchise for more than a decade and had been excited to speak with the CrossFit CEO and owner. “I get to meet this guy who’s probably been the biggest influence in this field,” Young told BuzzFeed News, “and then it turned into a shitshow, really, where the guy is just — conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory.

“My first thought was, I thought maybe I was being punked, but I knew how he was and I thought this is just batshit crazy. I’m sitting there, like, my jaw is dropping. Is this happening? What is this guy saying?

“It was just surreal,” he said.

Young, whose audio had not been working for most of the call, said he had to leave early to attend another meeting. He said he later wrote to the Minneapolis gym owner to apologize for not being able to defend them on the call.

“It was beyond awkward,” he said. “The way I would describe it, I was privy to information from a private conversation that the world should know about. This guy has a couple thousand of these CrossFit affiliates, and he’s the figurehead, and he’s speaking like a lunatic at a time when things like COVID-19 and George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, are basically already causing unrest. And the things he’s saying are unsubstantiated conspiracy theories — inflammatory nonsense, really.”

Young said he went to bed on Saturday night with the conversation weighing on him. When he woke up on Sunday, he decided to take a stand and publicly announce he would no longer work with CrossFit. He prepared a post on Medium, but Glassman had already written his “FLOYD-19” tweet. But because Young did not record the call, he said, he tried to not go into specific details in his Medium post about what Glassman said in order to avoid a potential lawsuit.

“The tweet is bad. It’s insensitive,” he said. “But as someone who listened to the call, you know the tweet is nothing compared to the phone call.”

Near the end of the call, when a gym owner suggested they were considering dropping their affiliation with CrossFit, another CrossFit headquarters staff member spoke to defend Glassman. “You’re not even approaching this with any compassion. You’re approaching this strictly with your agenda,” they told the gym owner. “Do you know how many Black people are going to be saved by CrossFit?”

CrossFit’s days of backlash started when Alyssa Royse, an affiliate owner from Seattle, posted an email that she received from Glassman in response to a letter she wrote detailing why her gym would be leaving the brand.

“You’re doing your best to brand us as racist and you know it’s bullshit,” Glassman wrote back. “That makes you a really shitty person. Do you understand that? You’ve let your politics warp you into something that strikes me as wrong to the point of being evil. I am ashamed of you.”

Glassman went further on the call with affiliates that did not include Royse, saying that her letter had “all of the class, all of the moral value of putting a sign in someone’s yard that says ‘known pedophile.’”

“It’s a horrible fucking thing to do to someone, to call them a racist when there’s no evidence, when there’s not one scintilla of evidence to suggest anything like that, and that’s what she did to me. And what I sent her back was a ‘Fuck off!’” Glassman told the members of the Zoom call. “You call me a racist and I’mma tell you, ‘Fuck you!’ You tell me to spin around twice or I’m a racist and I’ll go, ‘Fuck you!’ We can get to ‘fuck you’ a bunch of ways. What it leads me to believe is that this isn’t about race.”