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Facial recognition error leads to wrong man’s arrest

Louisiana authorities love to use facial recognition technology, but it has now led to a wrongful arrest of a black man from Georgia, his lawyer said. The case yet again brought attention to racial disparities in the use of the digital tool.

Randal Reid, 28, has never actually visited Louisiana, but in November, facial recognition technology blamed him for a purse theft in the state. The man had been arrested and thrown in jail for six days before the mistake was finally corrected.

Reid was jailed on November 25 in DeKalb County, Georgia, after authorities misidentified him as an offender in purse thefts in Jefferson Parish and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Not only has Reid not ever visited that US state, but unlike the real criminal, he has a mole on his face and weighs 40 pounds less. Despite that, the man had to spend six days in jail until he was released on December 1.

According to Reid’s lawyer Tommy Calogero, his client’s arrest brings new attention to the use of the technology, which, critics say, results in a higher rate of misidentification of people of color.

“They told me I had a warrant out of Jefferson Parish. I said, ‘What is Jefferson Parish?’” Reid told The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate. “I have never been to Louisiana a day in my life. Then they told me it was for theft. So not only have I not been to Louisiana, I also don’t steal.”

Calogero said his client was falsely linked to the June theft of luxury purses from a consignment shop in Metairie, a New Orleans suburb in Jefferson Parish.

The thieves had stolen $10,000 worth of luxury Chanel and Louis Vuitton purses over a three-day span. Reid was then connected to another luxury purse theft the same week.

Differences, such as a mole on Reid's face, prompted the Jefferson sheriff to rescind the warrant, said Calogero, who estimated a 40-pound difference between Reid and the purse thief in surveillance footage.

“I think they realized they went out on a limb making an arrest based on a face,” Calogero said.

It’s unclear how exactly the authorities in Louisiana are using facial recognition technology. But in July, New Orleans City Council voted to allow police to use facial recognition after several people complained about privacy issues.

Police can use facial recognition to identify suspects of violent crimes after all other tactics fail. The tool can only be used to generate leads, and officers must get approval from department officials before lodging a request through the Louisiana State Analytic and Fusion Exchange in Baton Rouge.

Besides, all possible matches must undergo a peer review by other facial recognition investigators. It’s not known whether this was done in Reid’s case.

However, activists and researchers have claimed the potential for errors while using the technology is too great and that mistakes could result in the jailing of innocent people.

Experts also claim that the technology could be used to create databases that may be hacked or inappropriately used, for instance, in mass surveillance deployed by authoritarian regimes or dictatorships.

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